Four Signs of a Toxic Culture

Four Steps that Make Your Company Culture Spiral Downward

Your culture defines how things are done at your organization. But it’s possible your culture defines how things are not done at your organization. Instead of moving your organization forward, it’s possible your culture is holding you back. If that’s the case, you have a toxic culture.

toxic culture

A toxic culture makes everything more difficult at your organization. Eventually a toxic culture will cause you to lose your best people, decrease your productivity, and reduce your profitability. And it will only get worse unless it’s identified and addressed.

Here are four signs that you have a toxic culture at your workplace.


1. Silence: fear of being punished


Silence in your organization is not golden: it is a warning sign of a toxic culture. It means that people feel afraid, unwilling, or unable to say what needs to be said. When people are aware of a problem, they choose not to say anything. Instead they remain silent.

They feel that they will be punished for speaking the truth about the situation. Those in positions of authority could intentionally be trying to squelch people from speaking up. Or they are completely oblivious that they have insulated themselves from input. Or they have unintentionally fostered a system where the hard truth is not easily shared.

Silence fosters a toxic culture. It provides a breeding ground for further problems. If people don’t’ feel like they can speak up, they channel their productive energies into unproductive pursuits.


2. Silos: no loyalty to others


When you have silos at your organization, you have separately functioning units but no cohesive organization. Each department or division behaves autonomously—as if it could survive separately—and is not interested in helping the other departments or divisions..

There is no loyalty to the overarching organization. Managers are territorial and focus on fighting for their resources and personnel to the detriment of other managers. They are not interested in helping the rest of the organization because they do not trust the other areas within the organization.

Silos are a sign you have a toxic culture at your organization. They create a vicious cycle within the organization. Once silos take root within your organization, they lead to other destructive signs within the organization.


3. Blame: unwillingness to take responsibility


Mistrust between departments and divisions lead to blame. Territorial perspectives lead to thinking that other areas are responsible for the problems the organization faces. Employees are conditioned to believe that their area is in the right, and every other area is in the wrong. And everyone plays the blame game.

When departments and divisions play the blame game, they do not take responsibility for their part in how things aren’t working. Instead they are unwilling to see how they could contribute to the problems in the organization. It is easier to believe what they are continually being told—that everyone else is at fault.

The blame game is a sign that you have a toxic culture. Employees have been well trained to assume others are responsible for the problems in the organization. As a result, they are ready to move to the next level of toxic culture.


4. Politics: factions instead of facts


When people have played the blame game long enough, they end up playing politics at work. Their loyalty to their department or division is rewarded regardless of competence. It also means that people shore up their support of others within the organization to cover for their own ineptness or the ineptness of their department or division.

Silence, silos, and blame breed the desire to play favorites regardless of the benefit to the organization. People are not trying to promote the health of the organization because everyone is trying to protect and promote their own area—and to blame everyone who does not agree with them.

Politics is a sign of a toxic culture. People want to cover up their own short comings and play favorites. They want to avoid accountability. Because it does not benefit them to do so.


Key Takeaway


Silence, silos, blame, and politics all happen in a toxic culture. They happen when people are not rewarded for saying things that need to be said. When they are not rewarded for breaking down silos. When they are not rewarded for avoiding the blame game. And when they are not rewarded for avoiding playing politics.

The problem is that in most companies with toxic cultures, the CEO is unaware. It’s like the proverbial frog in the pot: the heat has increased slowly over time, and the frog realizes too late that the pot is now boiling. That’s why it’s best to have a third party conduct a culture audit to get an accurate assessment of the culture. Or else you may be completely oblivious that you have developed a toxic culture.


How healthy is your culture? Do you know?


Robert McFarland is the author of the bestsellers, Dear Boss: What Your Employees Wish You Knew and Dear Employee: What Your Boss Wishes You Knew. Robert is also President of Transformational Impact LLC, a leadership development consultancy helping companies make ideals actionable.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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