How to identify a toxic work culture

by | 27 Nov 2021 | Leadership

I’ve been fortunate to work in and with and lead in some fantastic cultures and have worked with some truly great people and exceptional organisations. I have also worked with organisations (thankfully a truly very small minority) where a toxic culture pervaded at the time. 

There are 10 common toxic culture patterns to recognise and keep a watch out for:

  • Top-down being the dominant leadership style – ‘what I say goes’
  • Leaders with a grandiose sense of importance, lacking empathy and integrity, showing petulance, aggression and sometimes abuse of those beneath them – at its extreme this can be narcissistic, sociopathic and/or psychopathic behaviour 
  • Enablers in and around the organisation who allow the poor behaviour to go unchallenged, instead choosing to protect their own position
  • A cosmetic board of directors that has no real decision-making power
  • A lack inclusion, what sometimes looks like a diverse environment is an illusion and divergent voices are silenced or ignored
  • A culture of playing favourites, creating a lack of equity – rewarding friends or certain groups greater than others
  • Gaining power and control by playing people off of each other
  • Information being guarded and not widely shared, can be excluding people from meetings or documents being shared with the selected few
  • Top performers not sticking around leaving a culture of mediocracy
  • Fear being the dominant emotion – when something goes wrong excuses are quickly made 

If you find yourself working with or in a toxic culture, find an ally and plot your move out quickly and carefully as soon as you are able. Toxicity impacts your health and well-being and unless you are in a position to really change the behaviour then nothing will be any different, no matter how hard you persevere.

If you are in a position to change the culture then it starts at the top with an acceptance that there is a problem. Its then about setting out a new way forward, often with outside help, establishing new ways of working and holding everyone accountable and creating a psychologically safe environment.

Based in London and with over 24 years’ global experience, Karen Thomas-Bland is often cited as one of the top business transformation and M&A integration consultants and coaches in the world. She is a trusted advisor to boards, executive teams and investors, having led complex, enterprise-wide turnarounds and integrations to $105bn turnover. She writes for many publications including The Times, FT, Association of MBAs and Management Today.