culture employee engagement

Subtle Signs of a Toxic Company Culture

The marketing guru Stan Phelps likes to say that it’s hard to see the label from inside the can. He’s talking about having perspective in a marketing sense, but the same holds true inside a company’s workplace. When things go wrong, it’s often senior leaders who are the last to know.

Most organizations don’t set out to create a toxic workplace culture. Because these cultures evolve over time, it’s easy for leaders to not notice how much psychological pain employees are in. Even the employees may find themselves rationalizing antisocial behavior and dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics around them.

Here are a few signs that can tip off senior leadership to a compromised or unhappy workplace.

  1. There is confusion about the organization’s mission and vision. This is vexing for senior management because the mission is so clear and unequivocal. In a toxic culture, the values expressed every day by the actions of managers and senior leadership are not consistent with the mission, vision or even stated corporate values. Including “respect” in a core value statement and posting it in the lunchroom doesn’t necessarily translate to a respectful working ecology.
  2. There is a distinct lack of initiative and risk-taking among staff. Initiative involves risk and requires a sense among employees that management values their ideas and rewards those who innovate. On the contrary, an aversion to risk is borne of fear, fear that management doesn’t trust or value its employees. Organizations that foster fear and disengagement easily fall into sclerosis and fall behind competitors.
  3. Employees tiptoe around certain managers. Do you have managers whose direct reports approach other managers for advice and support? That behavior is a big red flag. When employees don’t approach their own manager with their vulnerabilities, it is a clear indication that the manager has lost their trust and respect by treating them poorly.
  4. You know there is an undercurrent of staff intrigue but you don’t know what it is. When there are whispers in the office there are shouts outside it. Staff rarely share their dissatisfaction with senior management (unless it has crescendoed) so if you can whiff it in the air it’s already a crisis. It’s also an indication that staff doesn’t trust their managers enough to share their issues and attempt to solve them together.
  5. Rampant turnover despite good pay and benefits. High-performance cultures worry less about pay scales because employees feel valued, and they know that is what their employees value.
  1. Widespread use of sick time. Management tends to blame employees for either exploiting the policy or living unhealthy lives. But often employees call in sick even though they could soldier on because they just don’t want to go to work.

Senior leadership needs to be attuned to these subtle signs of a toxic culture because staff is rarely going to volunteer that information until it is way too late.

Action Steps:

  • Stay attuned to subtle signs that the corporate culture has gone south.
  • Look for these six issues in your workplace.
  • Commit your company to improving the culture.
  • Start by surveying staff with a professionally-developed tool to determine their true level of engagement.
  • Communicate with staff and follow up on the survey results.

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