We’re often asked to talk about, teach about, and help ‘fixing toxic cultures’, or more importantly, what leaders can do about toxic culture and a toxic workplace.

Here’s a short article we wrote for the most recent edition of Inside Retail, about the simple actions every leader can take to turn around a toxic culture.

Culture of a company truly is the funniest thing.

You hear so many people talking about it, critiquing it, criticising it, despairing over it, planning to change it, philosophising over transforming it and blaming someone else for it, but you rarely hear someone talking, in a very practical terms, about what exactly a bad culture is, and much more importantly, how you, in equally practical terms, fix it.

Let’s start at the beginning, with defining bad culture, and then move pretty quickly to what we can do about it.

What is toxic culture? What are the signs of a toxic workplace?

Toxic work culture is the kind of culture that first kills the spirit of the team, then kills service to customers and, ultimately, kills the business.

It can be ‘toxic’ on a number of fronts – disengaged from the work, uncaring about quality or service, lazy and lacking energy, work to rule, or with an absence of visible leadership leading to constant undermining and a lack of teamwork.

Of course, there are variations of all that. Here’s a few to look out for:

  • The “It’s all about me” Culture
  • The “I can’t be bothered” Culture
  • The “I hate this work” Culture
  • The “Trust No One” Culture
  • The “Is anyone leading us?” Culture

And this is how they play out in real life:

The “It’s all about me” Culture

This is the culture of every person for themselves.

No proactive collaboration. Zero generosity.

Fight for your rights, your bonus, your own career and stomp over others to get there. Little respect and little trust in the fairness of conditions or rules.

The “I can’t be bothered” Culture

This is the culture where no one works hard. Get through the working day doing as little as you can possibly get away with and get out. It’s a race to the bottom in terms of energy and commitment. Rules and tight processes are put in place, to ensure the organisation keeps moving at all, but all they do is set a new minimum.

The “I hate this work” Culture

This work is meaningless and the customers who need it done don’t matter much either. It manifests as appalling customer service. There’s little innovation or initiative, because there’s no point. People literally hate the work they do, and no one is convincing them otherwise.

The “Trust no one” Culture

This is the culture where no one speaks up, with an idea or a criticism. Stories are whispered about that person who spoke up and isn’t around anymore. Advice on Day 1, Day 100 and Day 1000 is “Be careful’ – Trust No One!”.

The “Is anyone leading us” Culture

At its worst, this is the culture of no decisions, no priorities, no clarity around strategy. Where the leader’s voice should be – reducing the long list to the most important things – there is silence. People are overworked and exhausted, or fighting as they try to work out what needs to be done.

This could be the ‘worst case’ scenario for your culture. No bringing the team together, no inspiration to create energy, no purpose to get behind, and no trust that things are fair and you’ll be appreciated.

What can you do about toxic work culture?  

A lot.

Especially as a leader.

In fact, that’s your main role – to create a culture – a place and an environment – where people thrive.

Certainly, the CEO and very Senior leaders have the biggest influence, but every leader has a role they can play.

Make sure the foundations are right

Get the foundations in place. Communicate purpose and the work in a way that’s relevant to people. It doesn’t have to be grand. It has to be real. Describe behaviours that are expected. Be clear on priorities. Be crystal clear on quality, and whether it is customers over profit, or profit over customers. Set fair wages and salaries, and create incentives that reward doing the right thing.

Set the foundations.

Role Model! – Every, Single, Day

Culture needs your energy and your example. It needs people who believe. Turn up prepared and ready to make a difference. Optimistically tell the stories of what’s working well and challenge the naysayers. Be that person in every meeting, or in every store, that makes it good to be here. Laugh. Make today a good day for everyone around you.

Be good for culture.

Listen and do something with what you hear

Cultures are held together by leaders who know the work and how it gets done. Get to know the people on the team and the work they do every day. Ask people what’s working well, and what’s not. What do people love and what do they hate? A survey or a conversation as you walk the floor – Listen for the important stuff. Solve the problems. Hold tight to the best stuff.

Walk in the shoes of others.

Get back to purpose

Know the purpose of your organisation – the work the team exists to do. Know the customers and what matters most to them. Treat customers properly and in alignment with purpose. Make sure your work and your part of the organisation is doing the right thing by the community, or communities, you operate in or partner with. Make sure that what’s happening inside, on your watch, could be published on the front page of any paper, and only attract praise for doing the right thing.

Be good for customers and community.

Lead to the best of your ability

Lead a culture for your team that is as good as it can be. Make sure everyone’s work is purpose-aligned and appreciate every contribution. Care about the team and how they work together. Make it fun. Enjoy work and make sure the team does too. If you see misalignment that will hurt the organisation or customers or employees, fix it, or at least let someone know. Think of a better solution and suggest it. If all else fails, make sure the CEO has the feedback they need. You may not control the whole organisation, but you can make the culture come to life in the best possible way for your team.

Lead the best culture you can!  

What can you do about a toxic culture? Own it!

With a thousand rules and policies, a gazillion capability frameworks, and way too many posters and mouse-mats swamping every workplace, think about what you can do. After all, culture is simply the way we treat each other and the way it feels to work here, and that means it belongs to every one of us. 

As a leader, the only thing you can’t do about a toxic culture, is blame someone else. You have your hands on so many of the levers of ‘culture’ that there are very good reasons why courts (legal and public opinion) hold you responsible.

While only one person gets to be CEO, every leader can do something.

Do something!