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Working in a toxic culture is unhealthy. Life is too short to stay in an unhealthy and toxic workplace. Therefore, it’s important to recognize a toxic culture and know when it is time to leave.

Many years ago, I excitedly walked into an office for an interview.  I was buzzing with energy thinking of the great work we would be doing together and how much I wanted this consulting job.  The interview was in North Carolina.  Therefore, I had driven 10 hours the day before and had spent most of the evening picking up a new suit and fantastically funky jewelry.  I felt so ready for this interview.  You know all the stuff we do to prepare for an interview? I had done all of it.  Practiced answers, doubled checked my resume, ironed my new clothes and more.      

The big day comes!  Of course, I arrived 10 minutes early bursting with happiness. I walk up with a big smile on my face to greet the receptionist. 


Picture Celia Ma, the mean receptionist from Disney’s Pixar movie Monsters, Inc.  Here’s a video clip to set the right tone for this article.  Go ahead, jump on over to YouTube for 24 seconds and come right back.  I’ll be waiting. 

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Now that you’ve got the right image in your mind, lets go on with the story.

I’m standing at the high desk in a very beautiful building in downtown Charlotte.  She peers over the counter and asks my name, why I’m there and who I’m here to see.  She was annoyed by my mere existence.   However, I tried to approach the situation with empathy.  Yes, the receptionist was snarky but, maybe she was having a bad day.  I was wrong.  It turned out to be their culture.

The Interview

I entered the interview room. There, I met 3 senior leaders armed with questions.  The vibe was a mismatch from the start.  I could feel the culture.  They were uptight, too serious, and precocious.   I immediately felt small.   

The interview went on for 45 minutes but, it felt like 5 hours.  I left feeling confident if the offer came, there was no way I would accept.  It was not the place for me. 

After that, I did what I should have done BEFORE the interview, I researched the company.  I read post after post from unhappy consultants describing a nightmare work environment that included; churn and burn culture, working far more than 40 hours a week, burn out, made to feel bad when they took a vacation, overcharging of clients, inexperienced consultants in over their heads, backstabbing hyper-competitive workplace, and more.   

What are 5 signs you’re working in a toxic culture?

  1. Tension.  When you can feel the tension like I did in the interview, it’s likely you are working in a toxic culture.  Workplace tension is easy to spot.  Watch for employees that have limited positive interaction, chatter or laughing.
  2. Fear.  If you’ve worked for a company that often lays people off, then you will recognize workplace fear. Teamwork was out the window, only to be replaced by ‘information keepers’. In other words, information or work product is protected by the creator in hopes it will save their job.  People live in fear.  Fearful to be fired, of making mistakes, or, worse, each other.  If you sense people are working in fear, you may be in a toxic culture.  
  3. Lack of Trust.  When employees don’t trust each other, it’s a bad sign.  For example, if backstabbing, pinning one department against another, gossip or tattle tailing is the norm there is a clear lack of trust among the employees. 
  4. Poor Leadership.  Culture starts with leadership, bad leaders equal bad culture, good leaders equal good culture.  For instance, if you are working in an organization where leaders take praise for what the teams are doing well but play the blame game when they fall short, you are working in a toxic workplace.  Other things to watch out for are; firstly, high turnover. Secondly, leaders who speak negatively about what is being ‘pushed’ down. Thirdly, you hear managers say things like “this ship is sinking”. Lastly, you’re expected to work around the clock. 
  5. No Clear Direction.  A toxic workplace can develop when employees, management, and leaders do not have a clear direction forward.  This will lead to doing the same work over and over. Or starting a project only to end it and start a new one. In other words, if people are running around in different directions and demanding work on competing priorities, it’s a sign you may be in a negative workplace.

Why It Is Important To Recognize A Bad Culture

It’s been my experience you can have a toxic team and yet have a wonderful organization culture, but its often much harder to have a great team functioning a toxic culture.   A great culture begins at the top.

Understanding the organization’s culture and clearly defining it helps to ensure a successful organization. When culture is not defined or employees and leaders don’t fit the culture, the forming of a toxic workplace is inevitable.  So, what can you do about it? 

Changing an organization’s culture takes time and patience.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

Repairing An Unhealthy Culture:

  • Name it – that’s right.  Call out the specific behaviors that are creating a toxic culture.  You must call a spade, a spade.  It takes going deep to the root cause.  For example, with lack of trust, you’ve must determine what is creating a lack of trust.  Identifying the team lacks trust is one thing but, to resolve the lack of trust you must work on the root cause.  A great way to start this process is through employee surveys and confidential listening sessions.
  • Values Creation – The organization must have values and live by those values.  We call them Client Promises at Stratavize.  We use these promises as our north star to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.  Take time to examine the leadership’s view of values and the team member’s view of value.  Find misalignment. Once the values are created, develop a robust plan on how the organization will live these values.
  • Reimagined Culture – This is where the rubber meets the road.  It’s time for a roadmap for communicating, honoring, and living the Company Values.  You must go beyond a pretty infographic hanging in your board room.   Values must align with the strategy of the organization. Develop a plan that explains how the values will be lived and how team members will be held accountable.

Workplace Culture Is Formed By People

In conclusion, workplace culture is created by the people and is for the people.  Workplace culture can evolve and change but, it takes time, patience and a plan.  Finally, cultures don’t become toxic overnight. Therefore, it cannot be fixed overnight but remember it can be fixed.   

Unfortunately, there are sometimes that you cannot wait.  I understand.  However, if your workplace is so toxic and you don’t see leadership interested in naming it, creating new values and finding a way to reimagine a new healthy culture, it may be time to go.  We live but one life and we spend over 80,000 hours of our life at work.  We need to be working in a place that loves their customers and their employees.  Life is just too short to be unhappy for 80,000 hours.

Have you ever worked in a toxic culture?  Tell us about it!

Interested in creating your own Client Promises? AWESOME! Click here for our Client Promises Playbook.

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