When You Know Something’s Off: How to Spot and Fix a Toxic Work Culture

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When You Know Something’s Off: How to Spot and Fix a Toxic Work Culture
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When You Know Something’s Off: How to Spot and Fix a Toxic Work Culture

Remember that green face your mom would stick onto all her cleaning bottles when you were a kid? The guy had his eyebrows furrowed and tongue sticking out, like maybe he’d just swallowed a bottle of turpentine.

Working in a toxic culture begets a similar sort of nausea. A community that thrives on drama, infighting, and bullying leaves employees abused and psychologically traumatized. And the company’s bottom line suffers as well.

But toxic businesses don’t come with a warning label.

It takes a sound appreciation of what a healthy culture looks like to recognize dysfunction in the workplace. And a bit of experience as well.

Let’s go over the basics of company culture and how to recognize when something is off. Then, we’ll discuss strategies for dealing with a toxic climate, and ways to fix it.

Work Culture: the Gold Standard

In his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Louis Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, wrote: “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game. It is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”

Even more than the combined skill set of a group of people, the culture in which they work determines the success of a company.

What is work culture, exactly? Elliot Jaques, in his book The Changing Culture of a Factory, defined factory culture as:

“Its customary and traditional way of thinking and doing things. Culture, in this sense, covers a wide range of behavior: the methods of production, job skills and technical knowledge, attitudes toward discipline and punishment, and the customs and habits of managerial leaders.”

Company culture, then, refers to many facets of a company, collectively: its systems, processes, employees, leaders, and an ethos that connects them all.

O.C. Tanner, an employee recognition company in Utah, has studied company culture and broken it down into six parts:

Work Culture

  • Purpose: This is the “why” of the company, its core values.
  • Opportunity: What does the company offer its employees? This includes skill development, education, and a broader opportunity to be a part of a mission or movement.
  • Appreciation: How does a company value the dedication, time and effort of its employees?
  • Success: What are the company’s bragging rights? For what reason would employees hold their heads high when telling others, “This is where I work.”
  • Well-being: How does the company value and look out for the physical and psychological health of its employees? What is the work environment like, and how do they foster work-life balance?
  • Leadership: Company culture is trickle-down, for sure. Both in developing policy and modeling it, those at the top play the central role in defining each of the aforementioned areas.

These six gears, working in concert, create the framework for employee motivation and interaction, which in turn drive a company.

When properly oiled and tuned, a company runs smoothly. However, if any of these parts is abandoned, soiled, or neglected, things quickly fall into disarray.

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment

Like a proud homeowner, companies like to flash their shiniest toys to prospective employees.

They’re eager to show off the ping pong table, the espresso machine, and talk about the taco truck that stops by each Friday. –And boast of their epic Christmas parties as well.

It’s easy to be dazzled by the glam, and not notice cracks in the wall, sloped floors, or the stench of rot.

It can take some time to appreciate the toxicity of a work environment. But like a stream of red ants crawling from beneath the floorboards, little things inevitably will start to bite.

Here are some telltale signs of a dilapidated company whose culture is in decay.

OG Cred After Three Months

If employees cycle in and out faster than the phases of the moon, and newbies function as the in-house experts, the company has major turnover issues.

People may leave with a friendly smile and a wave, but take it with a grain of salt. This may be indicative of another red flag—an inability to freely express legitimate concerns around the office.

Lunch Feels like a Doctor’s Waiting Room

A healthy office space has some lightheartedness, and a tone of care and concern around the place. People find time to laugh and banter with each other.

If communal areas feel sterile and impersonal, and employees largely keep to themselves, something in the culture may well have gone awry.

No Work-Life Balance

Every company has busy periods.

However, if the expectation is that employees work ten to twelve hours every day, and breaks or vacation are frowned upon, it’s clear leadership doesn’t factor employee well-being into its policies.

No Path for Growth

In a healthy culture, it’s expected that employees will develop skills and grow.
A boss whole doles out raises like they’re an undeserved reward, and treats employees like they’re lucky to be there is just no good.

Rumors Abound

Rumors Abound

Every workplace has its fair share of gossip.

However, if you’re resorting to games of telephone to learn really basic information about the workplace, such as new hires, departures, upcoming goals and projects, then the company has fundamental communication problems.

In a transparent company, critical information is shared freely through appropriate channels, such as meetings and emails.

Management Models Aggressive Behavior

“At Uber, every meeting had been a short painful skirmish, where managers and employees fought like starving dogs over a scrap of meat,” relates Susan Fowler in her book Whistleblower, where she recounts her disastrous time working at Uber.

Culture starts from the top. When managers habitually berate employees in front of others, or “solve” disagreements with ad hominem attacks, they demonstrate that aggression is acceptable.

Work is an Obsession

If the only thing you ever want to talk about with friends and family is yet another crazy episode in the series “My Life in the Office”, then something is really wrong with your workplace, and you’re spending all your energy working through it.

Personality Morphs

During her time working under abusive managers at Uber, Fowler found herself easily triggered and hostile with family and friends. Eventually, she realized she had acclimated her personality to a work environment where verbal abuse was the norm.

If you find your demeanor and personality changing, it may mean you’re affected by an unhealthy climate at work.

A Hard Pill to Swallow

Arguments, pettiness and gossip are a part of any work environment.
A toxic culture, however, is like living in a house where people yell and argue all the time.

It takes some discernment to measure the barometer of a particular work environment. After that, it’s about navigating a path forward: either seeking a way out, or developing strategies to work and improve it.

Strategies to Deal With Workplace Dysfunction

Strategies to Deal With Workplace Dysfunction

If you’re in a toxic work environment, it probably feels like your boss is an evil queen, and every day you’re taking a bite from a poison apple.

The hard fact of the matter, though, is that most people find it’s something they need to live with, at least for a time.

It’s important to realize that even in an environment where abuse is commonplace, you’re still in the driver’s seat of your career.

With the right attitude, it’s possible to make the most of the situation. To that end, here are strategies for dealing with a toxic environment.

Build a Shelter

In a toxic culture, things are flipped upside down. Dysfunction is acceptable, perhaps even the status quo.

In order to see the situation for what is, build a sphere of normalcy. Find a few people who support you and recognize its absurdity.

Fowler writes that she and other employees would vent in empty conference rooms at Uber.

An outlet where you’re safe to express yourself honestly and receive support without any fear of repercussion is key.

Keep a Clear Head

Fowler recounts that managers would regularly tell her things like “How did you get hired here?” or “I know there’s an engineer in there somewhere.”

The abuse in a toxic environment easily leads a person to question her skills and capabilities.

In order not to be gaslit, it’s important to put up metaphysical walls. Tell yourself a different story: it’s not me, it’s them.

A good self-image, of course, is an end in itself. Additionally, it enables you to make a strong pitch to a prospective employer.

Focus on the Job

Focus on the Job

Even in a toxic environment, you’re still developing a career, so of course performance matters.

Prospective employers want someone 100% engaged in their job. They’re likely to ask specific questions about projects and job performance.

As much as it is possible, glide above the dysfunction, and stay focused on the “what” of the job.

It’s quite possible, too, that by consistently giving it your all, you’ll gain a reference or two from your current position. And that’s no small thing in building a career!

Write to Human Resources

If you experience abuse at work, or flagrant disregard for company policy, it’s important to report these things to Human Resources.

It’s sometimes the case that Human Resources is part of the rot, and won’t do anything about it.

However, workplace squirmishes easily escalate into legal situations. When you have clear documentation of everything that has transpired, it’s much easier to make your case.

Keep all of your exchanges with human resources in writing, and make sure they respond to you in writing as well.

Document Everything

In a similar vein, document everything you do in your job: tasks, projects, hours worked, etc. This puts you in a position to demonstrate your proficiency, in the event it’s called into question.

Similarly, document any exchanges with abusive people, by keeping a file of emails they send, and what-not.

Make a Get-Out Plan

Make a Get-Out Plan

If the situation is beyond repair, start making an escape plan. Pro tip: don’t print off any job applications on the company printer! Some of us have learned this lesson the hard way.

Talk to contacts, update your resume, and look out for prospects on job sites.
This might be just the push you need to level up your career!

Find a Diversion

It’s always healthy to have work-life balance. But when working in a toxic culture, it’s even more necessary to establish a clear demarcation between work and the rest of your life.

Finding a diverting hobby, joining a running group, or taking a course provides some psychological stability. It makes it easier to have a healthy perspective on the abusive situation.

This Too Will Pass

Although it’s painful to work in an abusive environment, it’s good to have the experience under your belt.

You’ll encounter different versions of the same story everywhere you go. And the next time around, you won’t be so green.

Ways to Improve a Toxic Work Culture

5 Ways to Improve a Toxic Work Culture

Every employee plays a part in shaping company culture. A toxic person can come from anywhere and destroy a culture very quickly.

Conversely, one employee can transform a toxic culture in a healthy, wholesome place to work.

Here are some ways to fix company culture and steer it back on course.

1. Lead Transparently

More often than not, the mess in a toxic workplace stems from the top.

Fowler cites an anecdote where Uber was strewn with copies of Ariana Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution, that celebrated the value of sleep, yet everyone was expected to grind away into the late hours of the night.

Transparent leadership is about making core values clear, and consistently modeling them: both in behavior and in policies.

2. Purge the Bad Apple

As discussed, company culture determines the success of a company more than the skill set of the employees.

If an employee consistently abuses company policy and disregards its core values, it’s best for the bottom line and everyone’s well-being to show them the door. This includes very talented and skilled workers!

3. Create Psychological Safety

Burnout happens when employees have no place to safely vent legitimate concerns.

A healthy company has open meetings, where no topic is taboo, and employees can air gripes without fear of repercussion–even when they know the managers disagree.

When managers acknowledge their own flaws and leaders encourage open discussion, it helps pave the way to creating a workplace where employees feel free to ideate and emote.

4. Build Rapport

Cultivating community and connection is part and parcel to any healthy work culture. Camaraderie develops when people care about each other, including their lives outside of work.

Rapport in large part had to do with listening and being empathetic. Developing practices such as gathering feedback after projects and actively listening at meetings, creates space for people to talk and be heard.

5. Sow What You Reap

No one simply witnesses company culture. Everyone plays a part in shaping it. In any role, employees have the opportunity to fix a work environment.

Fowler writes how she consistently escalated incidents of abuse and discrimination to human resources and upper management. We all know how her tenacity ultimately led to the resignation of Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick.

Accountability is an integral part to building a company culture. It entails everyone seizing opportunities to build community, and calling out dysfunction.

Sometimes this means making an effort to connect with a colleague at lunch time. At other times, it means sitting down with a boss or manager and having an honest conversation about the direction of the company.

A Culture Barometer

A Culture Barometer

After a few difficult jobs, it becomes much easier to recognize a culture gone awry. Just like our mom, we’ll have our own sheet of green toxic stickers to quickly label poisonous situations and environments.

And our hard-won savviness will make us more agile in dealing with them.

With a strong understanding of what makes a healthy company tick, it also becomes clear how to spot desirable work situations.

By researching and asking the right questions at interviews, it’s possible to chart a path to a career in a positive, thriving culture.
What’s your priority when evaluating company culture?

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