How to turn around a toxic workplace

Toxic culture is the kind of culture that first kills the spirit of the team, then customer service and, ultimately, the business itself.

It can be toxic on a number of fronts – employees become disengaged from their work, uncaring about quality or service, lazy, lack energy and work to rule. With an absence of visible leadership, it can also lead to constant undermining and a lack of teamwork.

Of course, there are variations of all of that in different workplaces. Here are a few to look out for:

“It’s all about me”

This is the culture where every person is out for themselves. No proactive collaboration. Zero generosity. Fight for your rights, your bonus, your own career and stomp over others to get there. There’s little respect and little trust in the fairness of conditions or rules.

“I can’t be bothered”

This is the culture where no-one works hard. It’s about getting through the day doing as little as you can possibly get away with before getting 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.

“I hate this work”

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.

“Trust no-one”

This is the culture where no-one speaks up with an idea or constructive criticism. Stories are whispered about that former employee who once spoke up and isn’t around anymore. Advice on day one, day 100 and day 1000 is “Be careful – trust no-one!”.

“Is anyone leading us?”

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.

What can you do about toxic culture?

As a leader, your main role is to create a positive workplace culture, a place and an environment where your people can be happy and thrive. Certainly, the CEO and very senior leaders have the biggest influence, but every leader in the business has a role they can play.

Make sure the foundations are right

Get the structures in place. Communicate purpose and the work in a way that’s  be grand. It has to be real. Describe behaviours that are expected. Be clear on priorities. Be crystal clear on quality and whether it’s customers over profit, or profit over customers. Set fair wages and salaries, and create incentives that reward people for doing the right thing.

Be a daily role model

Culture needs your energy and your example. It needs people who believe. Turn up prepared and ready to make a difference. Share your optimism and 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. 

Walk in the shoes of others

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? Have a conversation with your employees as you walk the floor. Listen for the important stuff. Solve the problems. Hold tight to the best stuff.

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.

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.

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 to 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.

A former HR leader and Telstra Businesswoman of the Year, Rhonda Brighton-Hall is a current director of the Australian Human Resources Institute and recognised as one of Australia’s foremost experts in human resources, specialising in leadership, diversity and future of work.


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