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Every Workplace Culture Is Toxic (And Not)

The signs you’re in a toxic workplace culture— and how to handle it.

By Gustavo Razzetti

December 11, 2018

No organization is 100% negative or positive

Your organizational culture is not static. It’s continually becoming more negative or more positive.

When we talk about organizations we often think in absolutes — companies have either great or toxic cultures. That approach narrows our understanding — companies are not 100% toxic or 100% healthy.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Culture is something fluid that’s fueled by both positive and negative behaviors.

Whatever you feed your culture, it becomes.

The Ambivalence of Workplace Culture

Most organizations fail to integrate their good and bad aspects. Culture is the behavior we reward and punish. A toxic culture is not created out of the blue.

Reflect on what you reward and punish.

Idealization creates deception: The pressure to attract the best talent forces organizations to idealize their culture. Leaders not only drink their Koolaid but also expect everyone else to buy into their fantasy.

Denial generates mistrust: Not acknowledging what’s broken or ignoring tensions won’t make the culture better. It merely creates frustration and anxiety — trust requires being candid about the state of the company.

Tolerance feeds more negativity: Usually, gossiping, blame, and jealousy seem harmless. That’s why most managers do nothing about it. Being too tolerant is dangerous — small acts keep spiraling until they become toxic.

Unfortunately, our brain is more prone to toxicity. Negative experiences tend to be more vivid than positive ones, as shown by fMRI studies.

Negativity distorts how employees view their work and roles — they can only see what’s wrong. Negativity spreads like wildfire — soon, the entire team gets caught in a vicious cycle of rumination.

Failing to reconcile what seems mutually exclusive — the good and bad — is the root of toxicity. Professor Robert Quinn recommends building the skill of holding two opposing ideas and integrate them — imbalance drives toxicity.

In his book The Positive Organization, Quinn invites us to amplify our mental map. Executives fail to see the whole system — they pay attention to a particular problem within the system. Likewise, when someone is not performing well, the first impulse is to want to fire that person.

Most of the time, it’s not the people who are toxic; it’s the culture.

In positive organizations, people flourish — they exceed the outcomes.

There are three challenges to build a positive organization:

However, positive organizations are not perfect; it’s about integrations both sides. Even toxic companies have positive aspects that can help rebuild their culture. Conversely, being employer-of-the-year doesn’t mean an organization is perfect either.

Your culture becomes whatever people feed it.

Workplace Culture Is Co-created (Toxicity Too)

Organizational behavior can be attributed to many factors beyond leadership, like the business, systems, policies, and people. Leaders influence is critical, but people play a more crucial role than they get credit for.

Workplace culture is co-created by both management and employees alike.

The leadership team of an organization curates the culture — they define or explicit its purpose, values, and behaviors. Through consistency and clarity, they outline the culture. Words are not enough — they must live what they preach.

People’s behavior shapes the culture — they bring to life both positive and negative aspects.

There’s an interesting dichotomy I usually see when helping organizations build a more positive culture. Senior executives take credit for the positive aspects of their culture and blame employees for toxic behaviors. Conversely, employees feel ownership of everything that works and blame their managers for everything that’s broken.

The first and most critical step is to level things up. Successful teams must abide by the shared accountability principle — both parties should be equally responsible for both positive and negative behaviors.

When you see something, do something. Rewarding and punishing good and bad behaviors, respectively, is everyone’s responsibility. If one of your colleagues is gossiping, and you participate in that conversation, you become part of a toxic practice.

Most people blame their managers for inaction, but they don’t speak up themselves. In the case of Google, employees walked out to protest corporate mischief. Similarly, managers must be open to being challenged and own their mistakes. Google said it got the message; the organizers disagree.

How to Deal with Toxic Workplace Cultures

Bonus: 10 Criteria for A Healthy Workplace Culture

Culture needs to be articulated, acted upon, and continually tweaked and reminded. Don’t assume that people remember.

Culture is dynamic and fluid — you need to take the pulse continually. Observation is one of the most effective — yet undervalued — research methods. Walk along the corridor and see how people feel and work. Talk to different people, not just your direct reports or colleagues.

I use the following prioritization criteria with my clients. Check how many of your company’s behaviors fall on the “greater than” side.

Shared Purpose > Lack of Direction

Common Good > Individual Gain

Authentic Conversations > Fear of Speaking Up

Culture Is Co-created > Culture Is Imposed

Positivity > Blame & Guilt

Feedback as a Gift > Feedback as Punishment

Mindfulness > Churn & Burn

Open to Change > Defending Status Quo

Honesty & Transparency > Avoidance & Denial

Talking about Improving > Talking About Leaving

 

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