10 ways to tell if your work culture is toxic

The unwritten rules of “how we do things around here” that shape a company’s culture can make or break its staff and its performance. But it can be hard if you’re embedded in a culture to diagnose how healthy it is. Our founder at Culture at Work and management training guru Carol Wilson talks us through 10 tell-tale symptoms of a toxic work culture.

If you’d like to talk about toxic working practices and what you can do to remedy them, we’re offering a limited number of free phone consultations with coaching pioneer Carol Wilson.

Click here to book a 15 minute slot in Carol’s next Coaching Culture Clinic

1. Narcissistic leadership

Narcissistic leaders are often found at the head of toxic cultures. They typically exercise power without responsibility, while their reports bear responsibility without power. These leaders demand perfect standards from everyone else, while vainly trying to appear perfect themselves. They are often at one extreme of the big-picture vs micro-management scale. Big-picture narcissists fail to give their workforce clear expectations, while micro-manager narcissists neither appreciate nor tap into the diverse qualities of their teams. Bullying may be overt or take subtle and manipulative forms, like freezing people out or withholding information.

2. The blame and shame game

Authentic positive feedback is in short supply: people only hear about what’s not right. The toxic leader is a threat, not a support, and public humiliation is rife. A common symptom is that real decisions do not get made at official meetings, but in unofficial silos of two or three people, in other places, at other times. What appears to have been happily agreed at the main meeting – where, in fact, everyone was just keeping their heads down and agreeing with the boss – will not be successfully carried out. Middle managers may share their reluctance with their teams, who may even try to sabotage the results.  When people feel unable to follow the toxic leader, an unofficial leader may emerge, whom colleagues consult before addressing or responding to the toxic leader.

3. Toxic competition

There is nothing wrong with healthy competition, like striving to win the “Employee of the Month” award. Toxic competition happens when a team’s energy is focused on petty rivalries with other departments, or taking colleagues down, rather than pooling efforts to succeed. When the sales team is putting all its skill, talent and effort into proving that the R&D department’s new product is unsaleable, no-one can win. They have forgotten that their enemy is not another team, but external competitors in their market.

4. Poor work/life balance

24/7 availability is expected for emails and phone calls, even when people are on holiday. No-one can thrive under this kind of pressure. It leads to the extremes of workaholics, who put in long hours to meet impossible expectations, and absenteeism, as people burn out and succumb to fatigue and stress. Resilience fails and the top performers leave.

5. Trash talking

People talk the organisation down; inside to each other, and outside to clients, feedback websites and the national press. They take no pride in the business and celebrate its failures.

6. Poor customer service

The receptionists or customer service agents are rude, chippy or unsmiling. They seem to look for ways not to help. If there is a toxic culture at the top of an organisation it will seep all the way down to the bottom – customers are treated the way the CEO treats the top team.

7. Low enthusiasm

People do not smile, laugh or joke with each other. Opinions are not freely offered, for fear of being shot down, and people wait for others to speak first. There is a sense of frustration, resignation and unease.

8. Lip service values

Most organisations have values and mission statements. It is often the case that in a toxic culture, the more people proclaim these values, the less they “walk the talk”. In a happy, thriving culture, the values don’t need to be stated – everyone feels and lives them.

9. Toxic peer pressure

People try to hold each other back. Enthusiastic new recruits are told to work more slowly because they are “showing the rest of us up”. Toxic colleagues don’t want to achieve more – they want everyone else to achieve less.

10. Low trust

In a toxic culture, nobody trusts anyone except in small cliques. No-one trusts the toxic leader, the leaders don’t trust their teams, and employees are wary of each other. People spend time defending their ideas and positions and will not share openly.

Sound familiar?

Negative behaviours, if left unchecked, can lead to a poisonous environment that feels inevitable and impossible to change. But, as we’ll explore in later posts in this Toxic Work Culture series, it is possible to change the culture of an organisation. Step one is recognising the problem.

The Culture at Work team has helped many companies deal with performance and team-limiting behaviours in the workplace.

If you’d like to talk about toxic working practices and what you can do to remedy them, we’re offering a limited number of free phone consultations with coaching pioneer Carol Wilson.

 Click here to book a 15 minute slot in Carol’s next Coaching Culture Clinic