Turn around a toxic work culture

by Stephanie Zillman04 Dec 2013

Toxic cultures breed hostile, pessimistic team members, drive away top talent and prevent organisations from reaching their full potential. While toxic work cultures are the end result of many factors, it’s generally a combination of poor leadership and individuals who perpetuate the culture.

Experts say that despite the daunting task of turning around the culture of an entire organisation, HR can truly have a positive impact.

To one of the top executive coaches in the US, toxic work environments can only exist where a lack of trust and respect are present, and this only occurs in the absence of sound leadership. The fuel for toxic work environments is conflict, ego, gossip, and corporate ladder climbing, Mike Myatt from coaching firm N2growth and author of Leadership Matters...The CEO Survival Manual said. The very first step is focusing on the leadership team and getting senior management to see change is necessary. In toxic work environments, senior leaders have made decisions (or failed to make decisions) that has supported behaviours that do not fit with the desired culture and this is where coaching may come into play.

“Great leaders simply won’t tolerate a toxic team member – the risks are too great. Real leaders will quickly coach toxic team members to a healthy place, or show them the door – there is no third option,” Myatt said.

According to Vantage Human Capital, a specialist cultural change firm, and IncrediblePeople.net, the following steps may be followed as a starting point forturning around a toxic work culture.

1. Identify the major problems by gathering information

This is easier said than done, as perpetuators of toxic environments are less than forthcoming with feedback. This makes it very difficult for managers to discover the root causes of problems and also to deliver solutions to improve the workplace, yet an anonymous employee survey can go a long way to uncovering what people really think about the workplace.

Above all else, employees want to be heard and valued, so in giving staff an opportunity to provide feedback to specific questions may yield surprisingly candid results, with solid suggestions on how to improve the workplace.

Also, in gathering information from the workforce through anonymous employee opinion surveys or focus groups with smaller teams, is a sure way to begin to pinpoint what (or who) is causing the employees the most pain, and also to identify what’s working well so that you can leave those factors alone.

However, it’s also really important for the leadership team to identify an ideal culture and values for their business, so that they can use that shared vision as their compass to guide them towards a more positive culture. Asking the question “What does an ideal day look like?” and getting very specific about capturing that ideal culture will be really useful to the leadership team in the coming months (and years) as the organisation begins to change its direction. 

2. Develop a plan and follow through

Once you have an understanding of the major issues you are facing, the HR team can develop the action plan. It may not be possible to deal with each issue unaided, at least in part due to perceived conflicts of interest. Sometimes the assistance of an experienced outsourcercan best guide the leadership team to move beyond the thinking which caused the problems in the first place.

Ultimately, guiding an organisation through cultural change is a long-term strategy, and it takes a “do what it takes” mentality from all stakeholders to really turn a corner. If HR communicates the strategy positively, honestly and continuously many of the team will jump on board very enthusiastically.


  • by Leanne Faraday-Brash 23/07/2013 6:31:47 PM

    Can't disagree, particularly the reference to incompetent or negligent leadership but two other critical and necessary ingredients once you've done your research and know where your problems lie
    1) know that they have been enabled, promoted, incentivized because there was some organisational payoff for doing so whether because they were the darling of the clients or because the culprit was your best salesperson so be prepared to take a hit and
    2) act with courage even if you face IR fallout or risk bad publicity.
    Based on my 20 years as an org. psych to companies and government we tend to overestimate the risk of acting against toxic individuals and underestimate the risks and costs of doing nothing.
    We get the culture we deserve. We get the behaviour we're prepared to tolerate. No vulture cultures!!!

  • by Bernie Althofer 4/12/2013 3:56:40 PM

    In some cases there is a 'she'll be right' attitude when it comes to dealing the toxic people. It seems that in some cases, those charged with responsibility and accountability wash their hands of making the right decisions about actually managing the person or persons. They are unsure, lack the skills required to deal with the situation or the person, or in some cases, perceive that any decision they make will end in litigation so they just let the problem fester until it is front page news.

    Sometimes the long term damage being caused has to take priority over the short term financial gains or outcomes being achieved.

    The problem that develops when inertia rules or inaction occurs is the the 'toxic person' takes it as a sign that they are being given approval to continue along their merry way. It becomes even more difficult to deal with the situation when the person has managed to get them into a very senior position or senior decision maker, with the support of other senior people.

  • by Isobel Lavin 6/12/2013 8:27:42 AM

    Everything in this article rings true.

    The most toxic environment I've worked in was in fact in an HR team where the culprit was (and remains) the HR Director. Very senior, highly influential and charasmatic.

    To the "team" he led, he was toxic- aligned himself with the weakest, junior managers and influenced them to the point that the culture became well and truly entrenched.

    A true psychopath.

    With such authority at play, there was no choice but to leave.

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