Dissecting toxic work cultures

by Cameron Edmond23 Jan 2014
Earlier this week, The NY Times published a story regarding wealth addiction and the toxic culture that runs rampant on Wall Street.

The author, Sam Polk, chronicled his time on Wall Street and the toxic culture that still exists in the heart of investment banking.

“In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighbourhood in “The Wire” when the heroin runs out,” he wrote. “Wall Street is a toxic culture that encourages the grandiosity of people who are desperately trying to feel powerful.”

While chances of one’s organisation reaching the levels of a Wall Street business in terms of toxicity are low, HR should be wary of toxic cultures infecting their teams.
The whitepaper, Toxic Teams: Four Steps to Transforming Dysfunctional Teams, by Leading Geeks, warns that toxic teams can manifest from seemingly harmless behaviour.

No teams start out toxic – they may develop into them overtime due to behaviour that is often inconsistent with the rest of the team’s expectations. The behaviour can be as simple as a manager showing up late to meetings, or as drastic as a team member being publically shamed.

Once the behaviour occurs, opinions and observations are developed by the rest of the team which can trigger negative emotional responses, which may then spiral into broader assumptions about the team. If enough of these develop, the team’s culture will become toxic. Examples of these assumptions include:
  • Mistakes are unacceptable here.
  • I should avoid blame at all costs.
  • Excellence is not rewarded, so I may as well be mediocre.
  • Sharing ideas can get me punished, so I’ll keep quiet.
  • Management doesn’t look out for our interest, so we must take care of ourselves.
  • You win here by taking others down, not doing good work.
  • My work is meaningless.
Once people begin acting on these assumptions and are not punished, those on the receiving end will respond in kind. It is easy to see how this can spiral out of control.
The whitepaper points out that the most damaging element of a toxic culture is its tendency to infect other teams, as this will damage the organisation as a whole. The actions of employees in one team will begin to be seen (or experienced) by other teams, who will then begin to act the same way, allowing the toxic culture to become a corporation-wide problem.

Key HR takeaways
Leading Geeks outlined four key steps to remedy a toxic team in your organisation:

Find the toxic behaviours and their impact
Identify the behaviours that you find the most troubling. This list will not be exhaustive – most of the problems will be clear to you. To help complete the list, ask yourself and your staff what bothers them the most, what others are complaining about, and what the excuses most used in the organisation are.

Now analyse these behaviours. How are they impacting your operations? What emotional responses do team members have to them, and what assumptions arise? You should now begin to see patterns in terms of what behaviours are having an impact on your staff, and can begin to prioritise what needs to be addressed.

Claim and assign responsibility
If a toxic culture has been allowed to develop, HR will need to claim a bulk of the responsibility for it. However, others may have direct or indirect responsibility, and should be identified. Who initiated the behaviour? Who responded in kind/escalated or rewarded it? Indirectly, who tolerated the behaviour or encouraged it?

Plan your interventions
With the behaviour and those responsible identified, it is now time to intervene and improve the situation. Your intervention must address the behaviour itself, not the emotions or assumptions.

The intervention may only affect one individual and involve hiring a coach to work through their behavioural issues, private conversations, or even warnings and demotions. Otherwise, they may be collective and involve training sessions, offsite meetings with the whole team, revamping team arrangements or simply emails about what behaviour is acceptable.

Implement and monitor
As with any initiative, ensuring its longevity in the organisation is important. Behaviour should be rigorously monitored and measured to ensure people don’t fall back into old behaviours. Signs that indicate your initiative is working include:
  • People thank you for intervening.
  • A measurable sense of relief across the organisation.
  • Creative energy is focused onto the project (not problems).
  • Disagreements are about the work, not personalities.
  • Turnover slows down (or stops entirely).
  • Less time is devoted to private, whispered conversations.
Have you dealt with a toxic culture/team in your career? How did you deal with it?


  • by Jacqui 23/01/2014 1:53:05 PM

    I just escaped from a toxic team one month ago, and moved into another part of the same organisation. I was seriously making efforts to leave the company, as internal networking and interviews yielded no success.

    The toxic culture became so thick from the individuals, that it was not the work that became unenjoyable that led me to move, simply the relationships and environment in which I performed my work. Little help was provided from HR also, as one HR rep often told me that I was not competent enough to be handed the 2IC role, regardless of the fact that I performed all of the work tasks that are applicable to the role (besides leading the team in the managers absence). It seemed her sole objective to bring me down.

    The toxicity came from attitudes from HR, the manager, Senior manager, as well as colleagues. From the attitudes of my colleagues, I soon found that they saw it unacceptable that I wanted to be away from my desk for any length of time (whether it be a toilet break, out for lunch, visit work peers at alternative sites, offsite networking meetings, etc). I truly felt chained to my desk, and yet had no-one that was willing to learn my work as a backup in my absence (lack of colleague initiative and well as lacking support from management). Many more items made the environment hard to put up with however.

    I'm very thankful I have been given a second chance within another part of the organisation, as I have come to realise just how unpleasant it was and how unsatisfactory the behaviours were. I'm certainly in a good place now.

  • by Bernie Althofer 24/01/2014 1:15:13 PM

    I suspect that in work units such as that identified by Jacqui, the ability for an individual to be able to move will allow that person to become more productive. Unfortunately, not all people are able to move within an organisation as has been highlighted in other similar discussions.

    I believe the onus is on the organisation to conduct a risk assessment using the above situation to identify those hazards that have contributed to this situation. There is a risk that others will be similarly exposed.

    It would be an interesting situation for the organisation, their officers and workers if they were required to attend at a Court, Commission or Tribunal to justify their actions or inaction having been made aware of the health and safety risks.

    It might be the case that some organisations act under the mistaken belief that once the target moves on, the problem is solved. Unfortunately, unless the hazards are identified, the risks recorded, the level of risk exposure analysed, controls reviewed and enhanced, then there is even chance another person will experience the same behaviours and be forced to move on.

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