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toxic culture

We have all been there when we start a new job. The organisation described the culture as ‘welcoming, ethical and focused on equality for all’ to recruits. However, the traditions, behaviours and attitudes of the leadership quickly showed this was the ‘wallpaper’ covering an old, unfair and highly sexist business culture.

The data would show new recruits leaving within 6-18 months, as the long-serving employees lived in their echo-chamber which reinforced their view of the world.

In this example, this culture was not 100% toxic. It was unfair, masculine, and sexist. High performance was measured by hours at your desk, your ability to keep your head below the parapet, and where long service was the definition of success. If you were there for over five years you may even get rewarded with a car parking space!  

Toxic: very harmful, poisonous or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way.  

The BBC wrote an article recently saying many people used the word toxic to describe cultures which they didn’t like. An example was when employees have high levels of work with tight deadlines (How every workplace is toxic – BBC, 2023).

From our experience whether you have a toxic culture is not a yes or no answer. There are degrees of toxicity, which might alter in different situations, different people and different challenges.

Toxicity: the quality of being very harmful, poisonous or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way.  

At Think Organisation our team has worked for more than 25 years with over 150 organisations, across 30 industries. From our research and experience, there is a definite ‘degree of toxicity’ in workplace cultures. This toxicity can vary in strength across teams, levels, or locations.

Does it matter if our culture is highly toxic?

Yes.

Organisations need to be sustainable, which includes protecting people, planet and delivering profit.

Currently, toxic cultures are costing the UK economy over £20.2 billion per year (Workplace Insight, 2022). With the surge in recent mental health concerns expected to cost the UK economy £66bn per year by 2030, it is vital organisations understand and improve their cultures.

Especially in terms of the levels of toxicity which may exist.

How can we afford not to measure culture toxicity?  

As many people will have experienced what you see on the outside of an organisation is not always the same as on the inside.

Often, the visibility into the organisational culture is murky. Leadership teams are unable or unqualified to measure and diagnose the toxicity levels.

Over the years Think Organisation has been working with many organisations to help them measure, understand and improve their cultures, driving peak performance.

How do I measure our culture?

Like a toxic gas, which we can’t see or smell, it is often difficult for someone internal to measure and understand the culture. Due to the complex nature of culture, it is also vital that the culture is measured using a reliable, accurate and valid tool. In recent years, the biggest change is the visibility of organisational cultures. People can share online their thoughts, experiences and opinions about organisations. These reviews are reaching huge audiences on a scale which was not available a few years ago.

The advent of Glassdoor in 2008 provides uncensored insight into companies which is often invaluable for people thinking about joining a new company. But then how do you know the information is accurate? It is true that the motivations of people who write many reviews need to be understood. And when this data is used in conjunction with other metrics (e.g. turnover, sickness, current employee thoughts, feelings & behaviours) it can provide the first opportunity to clear the murky waters of culture and understand what it is truly like to work in that organisation.

The key is the measurement, which currently is still very much in its infancy, so like using a ruler made of elastic the results can vary greatly depending on who measured them, when and why. This is where a professional, independent team can add real value. Measuring the culture is always the first step, but you need experts to help you interpret the result and plan a strategy for improvements.

So how does my organisation start to understand the toxicity levels? 

Firstly, it depends on your organisation.

Its age, size, industry and trajectory as to which measure is recommended. Science-backed metrics show that, based on academic research, there are many degrees of toxicity. Think about national scandals (e.g. the UK Government during COVID-19, or the Post Office), they either never measured the culture toxicity or if they did, the measures they used appeared to show there were no issues. This was not the case.   

Secondly, there is a journey to a toxic culture.

Organisations may be in the early stages, or somewhere along the continuum, whereas others we would classify as endemic. Many stories in the media could have been avoided if the organisations in question had measured, and gained insight into their organisational cultures. For example, toxicity can be across all levels of an organisation, impacting a high percentage of the employee population. In other organisations, there could be low levels of toxicity across the organisation, with one or two pockets of high toxicity. Until you undertake diagnosis it is impossible to narrow down the measure required, let alone design an effective and commercially feasible solution.  

Thirdly, some areas of toxicity can be more poisonous than others.

Sexual misconduct or racism are poisonous. Imagine different types of gases have different impacts on you. Helium can create high voices, and be funny, in small amounts. Large amounts can stop your breathing and cause death.

There are highly poisonous cultures that can alienate people, causing physical and mental harm. Other areas may impact everyone e.g. disrespect or gossip, and the poison can build over time. Yet in small doses, they have no immediate or significant impact. Like toxic gas which fills the room, the level could be very low, but time spent in the room could lead to physical and mental impacts over time.  

Fourthly, and somewhat controversially, in our opinion 99.9% of the time it is not the Manager’s fault.

Many organisations turn to management training in the hope of changing cultures, this is like opening a window to let some gas out whilst the gas is still pumping into the room. The intervention may help but it won’t solve the problem.

Take a founder we worked with, in the eyes of their employees, they were a bully. The behaviours they showed ticked every box on the bullying list. However, when we worked with them closely, it quickly became apparent they didn’t ‘intend’ or ‘decide’ to be this way. They just didn’t know another way. Their biggest fear was the company not being successful, which ironically led to such detrimental, divisive, and negative behaviours.  

Finally, there are always small, subtle or invisible signs that suggest an organisation is developing issues.

Having an expert to help you understand these issues, like the gas reader which beeps when gas toxicity is high. It is always easier to deal with cultures with low levels of toxicity, and no culture is perfect. Issues often build, compound and escalate to create high levels of toxicity. Using psychometric measures, employee surveys, observations, focus groups, data analysis and psychological observation helps our experts truly understand an organisation’s current culture. However, there are some indicators that anyone can look out for.   

Key indicators which may be signs there is an issue with your organisational culture  

  1. Does your organisation ‘seem nice’ on the surface, with benefits, but then the undercurrent is somewhat different?  
  2. Do people get treated differently? Is there a crowd of ‘favourites’ who get preferential treatment? Or a crowd who gets detrimental treatment?  
  3. Are there multiple decisions made which seem to benefit individuals and not the business or organisation?  
  4. Do people justify their behaviour? Blame others? Or always have reasons why they haven’t delivered what they said they would? Or do people avoid committing to deliver anything?  
  5. Do you trust what the leaders/managers say to you? Or is the gossip more accurate than the official information communicated?  

We recommend you individually think about these questions first. Then discuss them with your manager, leader or founder.

Remember this is about people’s perceptions so there is no right or wrong answer, the important activity is to start the discussion across your leadership teams.  

Frequently Asked Questions

How can an organisation accurately measure the degree of toxicity in its culture?

To accurately measure the degree of toxicity in its culture, an organisation can utilise science-backed metrics aligned with academic research. These metrics should consider various aspects of the workplace, such as employee turnover, sickness rates, current employee sentiments, behaviours, and feelings. Additionally, tools like employee surveys, observations, focus groups, and psychometric measures can provide valuable insights into the organisation’s culture.

What are the early signs or indicators that an organisational culture may be developing toxicity?

Early signs or indicators that an organisational culture may be developing toxicity include subtle changes in behaviour and communication patterns. For instance, underlying issues can be indicated by discrepancies between the organisation’s stated values and the actual behaviours of its leaders and employees.

Other signs may include favouritism, frequent blaming or justification of behaviours, lack of trust in leadership, and a tendency to prioritise individual interests over organisational goals.

What strategies or interventions can be implemented to address toxic organisational cultures, particularly when it may not solely be attributed to managerial behaviour?

One approach is to promote open communication channels where employees feel safe to voice their concerns and provide feedback. Additionally, fostering a culture of accountability and transparency can help mitigate toxic behaviours. Investing in training programs focused on empathy, conflict resolution, and diversity and inclusion can also contribute to creating a healthier work environment. Establishing clear policies and procedures for addressing misconduct and providing support for affected employees are essential steps in combating toxicity within the organisation.

Adapted from an article originally published on Linked In, December 3rd 2023.

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