How to fix a toxic workplace culture

by Georgia Parker | Jun 15, 2021

time icon 4 mins

Toxic workplace culture can be extremely detrimental to a number of factors within your organisation. Not just growth, but also:

  • Staff retention
  • Your internal brand 
  • How your organisation is perceived externally

This is a big and chunky topic and there are many answers to the question. However, when you’re dealing with OKRs, it’s important to assess your internal culture to boost your chances of success. 

If you’re dealing with a toxic or hostile work environment and you’re not sure how to fix it, we’re here to help. 

Factors affecting your fixes

There are many different ways to remedy a toxic workplace culture, but the best method for your situation will depend on factors such as the following…

The type of organisation 

From a large global corporation to a small start-up – the scale and nature of the business will impact significantly on any approaches taken to “fix” a toxic culture. 

This is a complex topic, as what feels toxic to one person may feel acceptable to another. A toxic culture can show up as many things, including: 

  • Blame culture
  • Office gossip
  • Excessive workload 
  • Long hours 
  • A lack of value and appreciation for people
  • Too low or even no psychological safety
  • Cliques forming
  • Favouritism
  • Nepotism
  • Controlling leadership
  • Poor pay and conditions 
  • Unsafe working conditions

All these require different approaches to remedy them, and the way that you approach these challenges in a smaller organisation will differ from the strategy used for a larger organisation.

For example, if toxic habits are ingrained in a businesses daily activities, you may need to implement a company-wide workplace culture training programme to tackle the issues. Alternatively, in a small organisation, you may find it easier to remove sources of toxicity to encourage a more positive work environment.

The source of the toxicity

Sources of toxicity can come from all levels of a business. A hostile work environment can be created by one senior leader and their inappropriate behaviours then become the default.

Alternatively, failures in recruitment processes can bring in people with very different styles to the existing workforce.

No matter whether it’s one root cause, or many smaller sources, it’s essential to identify and highlight the source of toxic workplace behaviour early on to boost your chances of solving the situation. 

The willingness to accept, understand and address the toxic culture

This must come from the most senior leaders otherwise any individual will be working in a vacuum and will be unlikely to be able to influence sufficiently or make any lasting change. Senior leaders must first look at themselves and their own leadership style and behaviours. These can impact company culture, wittingly or otherwise.

Typically, a business will be aware that its internal culture is unhealthy long before it becomes toxic. There will be signs and data from engagement activities like: 

  • Employee surveys
  • Cultural values assessments 
  • Organisational health checks 

All these handy workplace culture assessment tools will reveal issues that need to be addressed or at least questions to consider. Low response rates to any of these types of engagement mechanisms is often a sign that there is no belief that anything will change or a lack of psychological safety in expressing views.  

It’s also important to remember that the entire concept of a toxic workplace is subjective. For example, someone who is used to working in a fast-paced, high-performance culture may be prepared to endure much more pace and pressure from managers than someone who has worked in a family firm or in a business that has grown slowly and organically. 

Despite this, many would agree that a toxic organisational culture is one where people’s physical, mental or emotional health is being compromised in the medium to long-term. Most of us can endure a short term period of suffering in a toxic culture. If we understand it’s temporary, sourced in a crisis and there is a real desire and willingness to address it, we usually put up with it.

If not, we’re either going to get out by changing jobs, withdrawing discretionary effort, making complaints and grievances and/or becoming unwell and taking sick days. Not least we’ll talk about our employer to family and friends, so the damage to the brand image and reputation of a toxic culture is significant. Chances are, customers will notice too as they interact with staff members who may struggle not to reveal how difficult their working environment has become, as best they might try.

How to remedy a hostile work environment

So, how do we fix it? That’s the million-dollar question and one that isn’t answered simply. 

Our recommendations are as follows:

  • Accepting the need for change – Firstly, secure an acceptance and willingness from senior leaders to recognise there is a problem and explore this. Without that, most culture change efforts will fail, if they even get off the ground.
  • Data analysis – Get some data about culture, values, behaviours, psychological safety if you don’t already have information about this in the organisation.
  • External facilitation and advice – Looking outside your organisation can be helpful, as, without that, it may not be possible to see the wood for the trees and identify the source and nature of the toxicity.
  • Start talking –  Senior leaders need to talk to each other and their teams about what people are experiencing and what is needed to create a different way forward. 
  • Keep talking –  In teams, across teams, about the current culture and the impact it has, and what is wanted and needed by people, for people, from people, for them to flourish, not suffer, in their workplace
  • Test, learn and adapt Experiment with different approaches. There may be a need to restructure at a governance level. There may be a need to have some people move on if their style no longer fits the business and they aren’t willing to learn, grow and adapt. Try different ways of working that are more about coaching and empowerment than command and control. Get regular and frequent feedback from people to learn what’s working and what’s not.
  • Reflect and review Encourage open dialogue, without fear of blame or punishment, on how it feels to work in the business, in a particular team or in a certain job role.  

Many of the principles of OKRs and the practical implementation processes will help with this. But ultimately, if a business’ culture is toxic, the organisation will struggle and it may fail completely. 

So there is an absolutely robust business imperative to create the healthiest culture possible, or there may well be no culture left at all. Fortunately, here at TBG we can help you with that! We provide in-depth culture training to help you create a positive work environment where OKRs thrive. Get in touch with a member of our team today to get started.