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How to Fix a Toxic Work Culture

What steps can be taken when a workplace is intolerable.

Key points

  • Leadership is often the problem, and collective action may be part of the solution.
  • When first-rate employees are stressed and burned out, a larger problem is often afoot.
  • Toxic cultures won’t change without hard (and sometimes risky) work.
  • A key is having the courage to take action.

I have written a lot about the warning signs of toxic work cultures, but recently someone asked me, “I know I’m in a toxic work environment, but what can I do about it?” Unfortunately, that’s not an easy question to address. Most of us are in relatively low power positions, and can’t do a lot to change an organization’s culture. But wishful thinking isn’t going to make things better. Here is how to best approach, and try to fix, a toxic work culture.

1. Recognize It Exists. All too often, employees simply don’t recognize how toxic their work environment is. So, do an assessment. Here are some warning signs that your workplace is toxic:

a. Bad Leadership. Sometimes the bosses are the problems. They are authoritarian, overly-bureaucratic, punitive, and downright bullies. Realize, however, that bad bosses don’t get better without some intervention.

b. The Organization Lacks “Heart.” Companies that focus exclusively on the bottom line, with little care for the well-being of employees, are likely toxic. To quickly cut costs, they fire employees, or cut salaries. They overwork – grinding workers up and spitting them out. They simply don’t care about their people.

c. No Recognition. No Advancement. When an organization doesn’t recognize its star performers, and when it keeps high-potential team members in low-level positions, it’s a good sign that you’re in a bad workplace.

d. Misbehavior Runs Amok. Toxic work cultures allow poor behavior to go unchecked – ranging from more minor issues, such as allowing chronic tardiness and absenteeism, to bullying and discrimination of employees.

e. Too Much Stress and Burnout. Look around at your coworkers. Are they chronically stressed? Have really good employees become burned out and unmotivated? Are the best people leaving?

2. Be Part of the Solution, Not Part of the Problem. All too often, a toxic work culture can cause otherwise good workers to behave badly. Resist simply falling into line and picking up toxic habits. Make a commitment to working to improve the organizational culture.

3. Speak Up. Working to change an organization’s toxic culture takes courage. The first step is to say something. Talk to Human Resources or to more trusted leaders about your concerns. Make an effort to point out instances of misbehavior. Whenever possible, provide some data to back up assertions.

4. Form a Coalition. There is strength and some safety in numbers. Look at the advancements that unions made improving working conditions in many industries. Get a group of like-minded coworkers together who want to work to solve the toxic culture problem. Appeal collectively to leadership. Suggest forming a taskforce to improve organizational culture.

5. Do I Stay, Or Do I Go? In the end, you will have to make the courageous decision to stay and continue to work to solve the company’s culture problems, or leave for other opportunities. Frequently, a toxic culture is so deeply embedded that it is resistant to any sort of change.

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