6 Steps to Change a Toxic Work Culture

6 Steps to Change a Toxic Work CultureIt’s been a difficult time for many these past few years and for several reasons this has resulted in some work cultures being lost to ‘toxicity’. Perhaps the leaders have been less present due to distractions and remote working, perhaps the business has been too focussed on ‘task’ to take notice of the ‘people’ side of life or perhaps online recruitment has allowed a few toxic people to slide into the business who otherwise might be sifted out during a face-to-face interview and now their negativity has been fast spreading throughout your organisation.

Whatever the reason for it, toxic work cultures are damaging….

  • Damaging to profitability
  • Damaging to growth and/or innovation
  • Damaging to customer confidence
  • Damaging to supplier relationships
  • Damaging to employee morale and wellbeing
  • Damaging to your ability to recruit and retain
  • Damaging to your ability to know who you are and what you stand for as an organisation – those corporate values you once published have probably long since walked out the door!

The theory is one thing, but let’s bring this into the real world. BrewDog, as an example, found itself fermenting in a toxic culture claim. What impact might this have on BrewDog’s ability to recruit and retain great talent? What other damage do you think the business may have suffered as a result of this publicity and discussion of its culture?

What does a toxic work culture look like?

You may have been lucky enough never to work in a toxic culture, but here are some ideas for how it can show up:

  • Dominance is critical – so each day is another episode of that well known Soap Opera ‘Rutting Stags’ dominated by some key players in the organisation (can be at any level in the org)
  • Still on the dominance theme, everything turns into a battle or aggression, dragging in everyone in the vicinity – and all of it taking up so much time and energy before you can even do what it is you need to do – it’s an emotional rollercoaster – and don’t be fooled into thinking that dominance is all about volume (voice), as manipulative behaviour is equally aggressive.
  • A refusal to ask for support in case it shows weakness or gives someone else the upper hand leads to a lack of collaboration and team working – resulting in ineffective use of time and resultant low productivity.
  • Learning is rejected, so team members do not develop as might be expected which may result in losing competitive advantage.
  • Game playing is the norm – who wants a straight answer to a straight question anyway? But this gets even more destructive when it’s one function setting itself up in competition with another. Or worse still, when one function thinks it can play games with customers who raise concerns or complain.

On the back of all this aggression, emotional and cultural insensitivity abounds, including the inability to apologise or compromise, we also see a disregard for diversity initiatives and sometimes a total rejection of any kind of culture change. Through this we often see women and minority groups being devalued – or worse. Respect has long since walked out the door.

If we step back from a toxic culture, let’s see how this list compares to….

Possible traits of toxic individuals

  • Manipulative/game players
  • Undermines others
  • Judgmental and critical
  • Negative
  • Self-centred/selfish
  • Difficulty managing their anger or unable to express suppressed anger
  • Power and control behaviours/stubbornness
  • Lack of respect for others

Perhaps you have heard of the great stuff that James Timpson has been doing for nearly two decades at Timpsons in the UK, employing ex-offenders and training them up. If you read about James Timpson, he is the direct opposite to so many of those traits listed above.

It doesn’t have to be toxic – there is a different way – if you choose it!

Assess if your team or organisational culture is toxic

Look out for:

  • Valued team members resigning
  • New starters leaving soon after joining
  • Increased customer complaints
  • What’s app, Facebook and Instagram groups operating behind the scenes and creating an environment for bullying and intimidation of those outside the ‘group’
  • Team members keeping their heads down, so reduced company-wide communication, reduced collaboration and innovation
  • Increased absence and reports of stress related illness
  • Loss of high performing teams (HPTs)

6 steps for change  

As James Timpson highlights above, it needn’t be this way and even if your culture has gone down the pan, it is possible to change a toxic culture. Here are our 6 steps for change, they may need you to harden your heart and be prepared for battle, but it’s all for the greater good to restore harmony, wellbeing, employee morale and so much more:

Step 1: A line in the sand/a re-set!

Rethink your culture, or culture statements and reissue to the organisation – every single person needs to be crystal clear from top to bottom what is and is not acceptable behaviour within your culture. Clarity of culture and values absolutely critical. Ensure unwavering buy in from your top team to these culture statements.

Step 2: Reflect and revisit

Give everyone a few days or week to ensure all the messages about culture have been heard and understood. Clarify as necessary. Now proceed to step 3.

Step 3: Identify the root of any continuing toxicity

Who exactly is being toxic? Start with the more senior people and then work your way down to identify the ‘who’.

  • This might need to take place over weeks or months as issues arise.
  • It might be just one or two toxic people you identify, or it might be whole teams.
  • Whatever you do, do not ignore any toxicity at senior level, you have to address these people first
  • No need at this stage for proof or unwieldy investigations (aka a witch hunt) etc Just for now, take a top-level view as to who continues to have a reputation for demonstrating those behaviours we identified above as toxic and that are now not aligned with your published culture.

Step 4: Have one to one’s with all your potentially toxic people

  • Talk them through your published values and culture statements and identify, with examples, why you believe they are operating in a way that is not in line with your culture.
  • Take time to hear their response, but be wary of deflections, counter accusations and toxic behaviours that emerge during your discussion of toxicity. You may be dealing with a master of manipulation and you have to stay in control.
  • After your one to one, if you have reason to believe they are ‘toxic’ in some way, be sure to leave them with the message (both verbal and followed up by email) that ‘toxic’ behaviours or a refusal to operate in line with your culture statements will be viewed as ‘unprofessional behaviour’ which will be considered a potential act of misconduct.
  • Be sure to leave them totally clear of what you expect of them going forwards.
  • If necessary, be clear with them that attitude is a matter of personal choice and when at work, they need to choose differently.

Step 5: Dust down your disciplinary policy and check it’s fit for purpose

The Paperwork

Ensure you have included within the examples of misconduct and gross misconduct ‘Unprofessional Behaviour’. If necessary, have a separate statement setting out what you might consider to be unprofessional behaviour, e.g. poor attitude, undermining others, bullying, negative behaviour that disrupts or destabilises individuals and/or teams, wilful lack of respect for others, refusal/failure to adhere to company cultural guidelines etc

The Process

  • Then be ready to invite anyone who continues to behave badly to attend an investigatory meeting into ‘unprofessional behaviour at work’.
  • Do not set out a list of different complaints ie disrespectful, not honest, manipulative etc Instead roll up the examples you have into one heading of ‘unprofessional behaviour’.
  • As necessary, following an investigation and following an appropriate disciplinary process you could consider issuing either a verbal or written warning for unprofessional behaviour or, in extreme circumstances, you may move to dismiss on grounds of gross misconduct.

No need for proof and make sure you NEVER call it poor performance

  • In UK employment law you do not need to PROVE unprofessional behaviour, but you do need to be able to demonstrate you have a ‘reasonable belief’ that there has been unprofessional behaviour, following the completion of a proper investigation, having followed a fair process and having acted reasonably
  • NEVER, EVER be tempted to call unprofessional behaviour ‘poor performance’. Their performance is not poor. Instead, their attitude to you, their colleagues or their workplace is unacceptable and that is misconduct, not poor performance.

Gradually changing the culture

  • You will probably find that firmly managing just one or two toxic people who are visible within the workplace will immediately begin to reset the culture

Step 6: Re-establish respect

If you are hesitating over disciplinary proceedings, ask yourself how you will set and maintain standards if your staff realise you will never look a bully or toxic person in the eye and make them face the consequences. Please do this, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable, in order to regain control of your organisation and your professional standards. This is about re-establishing respect.

Looking towards the future

When you have begun to tackle your culture, perhaps it’s time to look forward and enter one of the many business awards for culture.

We like this one that has the strap line ‘Your culture is your brand’. If you have to regularly recruit you will know how important your brand is to attract in great applicants. Or take a look at the BreatheHR list of Culture leaders to give you some ideas.

We know it’s tough, but equally we know that toxic cultures can destroy organisations along with the mental wellbeing of their workforce. Is it time for you to get tough and then look forward to reaping the rewards of a respectful, high morale, professional workplace?

How we can support…

Not sure where to start or in need of a sounding board? Our team at Jaluch can support. No contracts necessary so you don’t need to worry about that, we are always happy to operate on a pay as you go basis.

Would you value training for managers in managing poor performance and managing discipline? Please do ask.

Face to face training, virtual instructor led training and elearning – whether you want to stick to one or blend all three delivery methods, we can create a course that will really embed delegates learning.

Other ideas from the Jaluch portfolio…


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