5 Key Signals that Denote Toxic Work Culture

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Priyanka Prashob
Priyanka Prashob is an organizational psychologist with 6+ years of experience in the field of Content and Psychology. She is a passionate writer and has authored 2 books. She has designed content for corporate training programs, worked on organizational behavior reports and numerous individual personality assessment reports. Several research articles written by her are published on platforms like Academia and Research Gate. The articles have gained recognition and appreciation from universities, academicians, and researchers across the world.

What’s the one thing that differentiates a high-performing organization from the rest? No matter what answers you give, all the needles will point towards one thing and that’s – organizational work culture. If people are the lifeline of a company, then work culture is like the blood that keeps the people going. Now, imagine the blood is corrupted with poison – what happens then? Before you know the toxicity will spread to every inch of your organization. And along with your people, your organization will die too. Pardon me for being dramatic, but that’s the depth of the feeling I wanted to emphasize here. Simply put, people are the ones that determine the success or failure of your organization. And toxic work culture is the ultimate root of failure and destruction.

Sadly, sometimes leaders could miss noticing the red flags that may be turning their organizational work culture sour. And even if they do realize, it may either be too late or they may find it difficult to pinpoint what exactly went wrong or is going wrong. 

What do the statistics say?

A Harvard Business School study found that nearly half of employees who experienced incivility in the workplace reduced their effort at work. Not just that, they made a conscious choice to spend less time at work. Wait till you hear this! 38% of people even intentionally decreased the quality of their work. 

This means one thing – a workplace with a toxic work culture makes employees uncomfortable and suffocating. Toxic work culture is the greatest enemy of workplace productivity, employee morale, and most importantly – employee mental health. But unfortunately, toxic work culture is still surprisingly common. Don’t believe me? Here’s a stat that will make you believe otherwise! That is, nearly 55% of workers say they face unpleasant and potentially hazardous conditions at work. And 3 out of 10 people report that their workplace culture makes them irritable at home.

Bottom line: a toxic work environment ruins employees’ and organizational health with irrecoverable impacts on productivity and employees’ life in itself.  Hence the only trick to escape a toxic work culture is to identify the signs that are making your work culture toxic before it’s too late.

So, how can you tell if your work culture is becoming toxic?

Here are 5 signs that denote a toxic work culture

1. Lack of respect

If you come across situations where colleagues are not respecting each other. Or blame-game always takes the front seat – it’s definitely something to worry about. Did you know? The Cornerstone On Demand report explained that working with a toxic colleague encourages 54% of good employees to quit. 

Take this simple test – look around your organization, your own team, your reportee’s team, and other teams. Do you observe employees lying to each other? Is there a lack of transparency? Do your managers really practice what they preach?

If your answer is negative to one or most of these questions, it’s time you take action and remediate the existing situation as quickly as possible. 

Trust and respect are the 2 major components of healthy and positive work culture. If these 2 values are missing or beginning to fade away, then it’s a clear indicator that your workplace culture is becoming toxic. So, take corrective action as soon as you identify such instances and make things right for your people and your organization. 

How do you do that? Simple, lead by example. Observation and imitation is the best way to reinforce behavior that you’d want your employees to hone.

As your people’s leader, if you say one thing and do something else – how can you expect your employees to behave otherwise?

Always remember, people would love to work with leaders who stand by their words – one who doesn’t just say the right things but actually practices those right things! 🙂

2. Gossip

An interesting study revealed that nearly 96% of employees admitted to participating in office gossip. Gossip can never be a good thing! It spreads like wildfire and takes the life out of the work culture that once was positive and vibrant. As they say, it just takes one bad gossip to ruin the sanctity of a healthy, positive organizational work culture.

Office gossip is what fuels toxic work culture and ruins everything good. It creates a toxic environment where open communication is discouraged as whispers, eye rolls, side conversations, and passive-aggressive behavior and remarks take an upper hand over everything else.

Gossip, though may seem harmless, may quickly translate to workplace bullying with consequences such as psychological burnout, depression, anxiety, and aggression, thereby, ultimately bringing down productivity and the overall organization’s performance.

3. Poor communication and lack of transparency

Of all the signals, the most important signal you need to watch out for is poor communication among the people in your organization which obviously is linked to a lack of transparency. Poor communication though may seem an individual problem – it brings with it a load of other problems that further add on to the already existing toxic work culture. 

Here are some questions for you. Do the leaders in your organization make hasty decisions without consulting anyone? And do your managers or team members conduct a lot of secret meetings only with a selected few? Do you find your reportee’s team to be unaware of the most important information that they are actually supposed to know?

I agree that leaders don’t have to consult all the employees every time they make a decision. But, if you are consistently surprised by decisions and don’t have a clue as to why that decision was made and how it will impact you and your other team members – then it’s a clear sign of toxic work culture. 

In conclusion, toxic work culture is a breeding ground for lack of transparency and trust, dishonesty, poor communication, power struggle, hatred, dysfunction, and confusion. And all these make it extremely difficult for your people to collaborate with each other and most importantly – get work done on time.

4. Disengaged employees

A disengaged workforce is a classic indicator of toxic work culture. There may be many reasons – crazy work hours, micromanagement, leaders taking the credit for their team’s work or leaders/management not taking action at all, employees’ not feeling heard and valued, poor or no work-life balance, red tape, favoritism, office politics, and the list may never end. 

So, here’s a simple question for you – what do you generally do to solve a problem? You would, of course, pinpoint the problems first – only then will you be able to do something about it. Not knowing the problem or ignoring it is the first biggest problem. And trying to solve all the problems at once is the next biggest problem. Take one step and solve one problem at a time – considering the gravity of the problem.

So, look around – are your employees disengaged and unhappy? Do they often complain? 

If they do, then find out why and start doing something about it. Put a stop even before the toxicity could spread and do further damage. 

5. High employee turnover

Is your organization facing a high attrition rate? Is your company hiring people for the same position some zillionth time now? If your answer is ‘yes’ to these questions – then, my friend this is a sure sign that there is something wrong with your organizational culture or your management style. Did you know, SHRM research revealed that one out of five people who have left their job in the last five years have cited culture as their reason for exiting. 

However, having said that, there are a number of reasons why employees leave jobs. For all that you may know it may have nothing to do with your company culture. So, how do you find out if there is anything wrong with your workplace culture? Simple, pull data, measure it, check the numbers, run a test and compare the benchmarks before you can come to any sort of conclusion.

However, if your data says work culture is the primary culprit for your high turnover, you definitely know what to do since you have overcome the most difficult challenge – identifying the problem in itself. Now, all you have to do is work on your company culture – that is create a culture that aims to bring out the best in employees, ultimately building a high-performing organization

Have we missed out on anything? If yes, please do share it with us in the comment section below.

Also read: How to Be a Good Leader to Your People?

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