Work is central to our lives. If you work a full-time job, then your work consumes over a third of your waking hours every week—even more if you’ve got a long commute or if working from home has extended the hours you’re “on call.” The amount of life occupied by your occupation is massive—too massive to be spent working in a toxic environment.
But how do you identify that toxic company culture from the outside to avoid joining it. Or, if you’ve already joined it, how do you identify the toxic elements and create a plan to protect yourself from them?
In this article, we’ll outline six signs of a toxic company culture, and offer a few insights to keep that toxicity from infecting you and your team.
Top-Down Leadership Style
The first sign of a toxic company culture is a top-down leadership style. We’ve known for decades now that—with very few exceptions—the best leaders have a transformational or servant leadership style that seeks to empower teams and individuals in their organization. Smart leaders know they alone aren’t as smart as everyone, and so they seek input from everyone even if they end up making the final decision. But despite this well-documented finding, too many organizations still suffer from leaders who overweight their own insights and seek compliance with their directions over competent, self-directed employees.
You often can’t change this culture on your own, at least not until the most senior leader exits (and even then, another little tyrant might replace them). But you can block the effects on your team by making more collaborative decisions. If your team is still being given orders from on high, you may still be able to empower the team around how they execute.
The second sign of a toxic company culture is information hoarding. This happens when people, teams, or whole departments keep vital information to themselves instead of sharing it with the whole organization. Sometimes it’s important intel like client information or project updates, and other times its petty things like the password to the copier. Information hoarding is a sign that individuals or departments feel more in competition with each other than they do with the organization’s actual competition. And sadly when that happens the organization becomes less competitive.
To the extent you can, seek to mitigate information hoarding by calling it out when you see it. When someone is slow to provide requested information, explain again why you also need that information and ask them their reasons for keeping it from you. If you can do this publicly by bringing in the whole team or someone on the next level in the hierarchy, even better. At the same time, make sure you and your team are known throughout the company as being generous with whatever information or resources they have.
Default To The Status Quo
The third sign of a toxic company culture is a default to the status quo. “But this is how we’ve always done it.” There’s a time and a place for routine and traditions in organizations, but there are also times of change and innovation. A culture obsessed with the status quo is a culture that assumes the world around it isn’t changing. It can lead to a toxic company culture, but it can also lead to there not being a company in a few years’ time.
Seek to insulate your team from status quo thinking by creating a team culture that’s willing to listen to ideas and willing to experiment with new ways of achieving objectives. You don’t have to do things differently for the sake of being different, but you do need to be willing to experiment with different and see if it makes a difference. Otherwise, you run the risk of joining the rest of the culture as a status quo bureaucrat, and your people may decide to join a totally different organization.
The fourth sign of a toxic company culture is recreational complaining. And it’s not hard to see this sign—it’s everywhere in a toxic company. Recreational complaining is complaining about something to others who don’t have the power to change it instead of doing anything about it. It’s complaining for the sake of complaining. It’s complaining as a coping mechanism. And in a toxic company culture, recreational complaining can easily become the company’s oldest pastime.
Recreational complaining isn’t usual the fault of the complainers. Instead, recreational complaining happens when people see a dysfunction in the organization but don’t feel any power to change it. It happens when people don’t feel those in power will listen. So, the easiest way to stop it is to listen. Abandon that “don’t come to me with problems, come with solutions” mindset and be willing to hear about the problems others see. If you don’t, you may never find any solutions.
The fifth sign of a toxic company culture is quick excuses. When a project goes wrong or a deadline is missed, how quickly do excuses start flying? Quick excuses are a sign that fear is the dominant emotion in the company culture. It’s a sign that people are afraid that if they are the ones who get left with the blame, they’ll quickly be looking for another job. So instead, everyone is quick to offer excuses and quick to try to pass the blame to others.
Healthy organizations know that failure is a form of feedback and that problems are an opportunity to learn and grow. Instead of a fear culture, leaders seek to build psychological safety so that team members feel free to share their setbacks and get help from others—and help others learn from their failures. When failures on your team happen, protect your people by being quick to uncover the real root cause of that failure (instead of always blaming a person) and quick to share what was learned as a result.
Top Performer Turnover
The final sign of a toxic company culture is top performer turnaround. It may be hard to see this sign from the outside looking in, but if you’re on the inside you’ve likely noticed it’s obvious to everyone. Turnover is inevitable in organizations—and even top performers in organizations move on to new opportunities eventually. But when many top performers start announcing new endeavors at once, it’s a sign that something more problematic is at hand. Talented individuals know that they need organizations less than organizations need them. They know they can go back to the job market quickly to find something—and so when they feel uncomfortable or unable to perform at their best, they often leave the fastest.
And you can’t fight this turnover by making counteroffers or adding signing bonuses. Even if you could find new and better talent, those people will leave quickly too.
Instead, go back and examine the other five signs of a toxic company culture. Seek to mitigate against top-down leaders. Smash silos and information hoarding. Favor change over the status quo. Listen to complaints before they become recreational and be quick to learn instead of quick to shift blame. In doing so, you’ll make cultural changes—even if it’s just on your team—and you’ll reduce top performer turnover. More importantly, you’ll build a team where everyone can do their best work ever.
About the author
David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.