Many years ago, I walked into an office excited 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.  I had driven over 10 hours the day before to reach Charlotte, North Carolina.  I had spent most of the evening before picking up a new suit and fantastically funky jewelry.   You know all the stuff we do to prepare for an interview? I was doing all of it.  Practicing answers, doubling checking my resume, ironing 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. 

Stop!  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. 

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 appeared to be annoyed by my mere existence.   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.

I entered the interview room and I’m met with 3 senior leaders armed with questions and my resume.  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. 

Then, 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.   

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.

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

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. You can basically feel the tension as you walk into the office and no one is interested in fixing the problem.

Fear.  If you’ve ever been laid off, you likely know how this presents itself.  I worked for a company that laid people off in November almost every year.  As the organization made the turn into the 3rd quarter, people thought they had to start protecting their jobs.  Teamwork was out the window, only to be replaced by ‘information keepers’; by that, I mean protective over information or work product they felt by being the only one to know this information they would keep their job.  People lived in fear.  Fearful to be fired, fearful of making mistakes, fearful of each other.  If you sense people are working in fear, you may be in a toxic culture.  

Lack of Trust.  When employees don’t trust each other, it’s a bad sign.  If backstabbing, pinning one department against another, gossip or tattle tailing is the norm there is a clear lack of trust among the employees.   Lack of trust will erode any culture and it will divide people into camps.  If you don’t feel like you can trust the people you work with, there’s a problem.  

Poor Leadership.  Culture starts with leadership, bad leaders equal bad culture, good leaders equal good culture.  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 may be working in a toxic workplace.  We are not referring to that one person, Bob or Sally, that takes the credit of their team.  No, this is a culture of taking credit.  Often employees will follow the same credit taking behavior.   Other things to watch out for are; high turnover on the leadership team, leaders talk negatively about what’s being ‘pushed’ down, management has a negative opinion of the future, you hear managers say things like “this ship is sinking” or you’re expected to work around the clock.  All these things are signs that it’s a bad culture.

No Clear Direction.  Organizations that have everyone marching to the same drum and working towards a common goal typically have a positive environment. A toxic workplace can develop when employees, management, and leaders do not have a clear direction forward.  This often leads to doing the same work over and over, starting a project only to drop it and start a new one, or people are not aligned in their organizational goals.  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.

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 a toxic 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 Company Values or Customer Promises or Employee Commitments, or whatever you decide to call it have been created with a diverse group of employees, there needs to be 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 and there needs to be a plan for how the values are communicated and how the organization will hold team members accountable to them.

Cultures are created by the people and are for the people.  Cultures can evolve and change but, it takes time, patience and a plan.  Cultures don’t become toxic overnight and they will not get fixed overnight but, they can be fixed.   

Unfortunately, there are sometimes that you cannot wait.  I understand.  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? We’ve got you covered! Click here for our Client Promises Playbook.

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