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Is Your Work Environment Toxic? 5 Signs Your Culture Needs to Be Fixed

Has your work culture turned toxic? If so, how would you know? Companies whose luster has become tarnished will often make decisions without consid­ering the impact of those decisions on its workforce. For example, when you remove office trash cans to avoid paying a cleaning service to empty them, what message are you sending to your team members? When a company announces a reorganization and doesn’t give those impacted an opportunity to adjust and ask questions, it sends the message that those people don’t matter.

Time and time again, I witness managers unwilling to have crucial conversations at critical junctures. Often people do not receive vital feedback that will trigger a change in their behavior and then are demoted or laid off without warning. Without that feedback, the choice to change is stripped from them. At best, this approach is cowardly, and at its worst, it’s inhumane. Here’s the bottom line: we can’t change what we can’t safely talk about.

So where should the conversation start? If you are curious about where your culture stands, consider these five signs that your culture is not operating in a state of brilliance:

  1. People are punished for telling the truth

In an emotionally safe, trusting organizational environment, telling the truth (as you see it) is encouraged. Sharing your perspective, thoughts, and ideas is considered vital to the success of the organization. In broken cultures, people lose jobs when they tell the truth, are marginalized when they don’t toe the party line, or get passed over for a well-deserved promotion when they try to point out flaws in the current system.

In short, truth-telling is met with an organizationally sanctioned punishment designed to keep people in their place. It’s called the power of repression.

  1. Leaders ask for more data and do nothing about the problem

This is often a disguise for “We really don’t want to know anything or change anything. We hope that if we keep asking for data, you’ll get tired and go away.”

If an organization asks for more data, it is incumbent upon the organization to act on the message in the data. When leaders ask for more data and don’t respond proactively to the new information provided to them, they are communicating that they lack courage, are unwilling to confront reality, or are more concerned with maintaining their own power or comfort than they are with positively impacting their culture.

  1. Your culture makes people leave

If your culture brings out the worst in people, your business most likely isn’t doing well. You may have a revolving door as people recognize the truth, burn out, and depart. Usually, these organizations are led by people who don’t respect the workforce. These leaders may not care about people’s individual engagement or success and haven’t made creating a trusting environment a priority. Often, when people do succeed in these organizations, they do so by playing the political game to move ahead on the backs of others.

  1. People work in an open space

On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a big cultural issue. Here’s the thing: In brilliant cultures, people get to work in accordance with their natural style and in alignment with their needs for space and connection. When an organization proclaims, “We will all work in an open space because then we will collaborate more,” I often observe employees working with earbuds in their ears. Does collaboration really increase? Or are people “plugged in” so they can focus?

I also notice that in many open space cultures, the environment is often silent. What if people enjoy the energy of connection, but can’t get it unless they reserve a conference room? Truthfully, for many companies, open spaces, cubes, and other collaborative workspace configurations aren’t designed with work styles and needs in mind. Instead, open spaces allow a company to say it’s collaborative while in practice often making work more challenging for some of its workforce.

  1. Your culture tolerates bullying behavior

If your organization is tolerating bad—even bullying—behavior, you have a problem. Why do organizations tolerate bullies? In part because they don’t have strong boundaries around acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The culture may not have a track record of peer-to-peer accountability or expectations around behavioral norms. Perhaps senior leaders have held on to power themselves by bullying others. Often the excuse for not confronting a bully is something like, “He is a rainmaker. He brings in so much revenue or holds our largest account” or “She is technically brilliant. It would be so hard to replace her expertise.”

It turns out that not only is there a cultural cost to allowing bullying behavior, there’s also a financial cost to your organization. Begin by determining the time period during which the bully in question has been allowed to operate unchecked. Next, evaluate scope: How many people have been directly affected, in that they were targeted by the bully or were aware of the bullying and indicated a desire to be away from the situation, either by quitting, transferring, or taking time off. Then evaluate turnover cost; a conservative estimate may be that replacing a worker costs 1.5 times their salary. Additionally, consider lost opportunity costs that arise when higher-contributing members of the team leave. Their exit may also mean losing their clients.

Trust me, everyone is replaceable, especially the bullies in your culture. Remember, a bully harnesses power by treating others poorly and preying on their insecurities. Because a bully is aggressive and action-oriented, it’s not surprising that they bring in revenue or contribute technically. Typically, these folks know how to get things done. Of course, they also typically increase the toxicity in your culture and drain its energy, all of which costs valuable time and money, and diminishes the overall health of the organization.

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Claudette Rowley
Claudette Rowley is the CEO of Cultural Brilliance, a cultural design and change management consultancy. Over the past twenty years, she has consulted, trained, and coached executive leaders and teams at Fortune 1000 companies, small businesses, academic institutions, and start-ups, helping them create proactive and innovative workplace cultures that deliver outstanding results. She lays out a road map for organizational success in her new book, Cultural Brilliance: The DNA of Organizational Excellence.
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