Toxic cultures can be debilitating. Too much exposure causes physical symptoms. If you have ever left a toxic working environment, you understand how important it is to protect yourself from re-entering. The organization cancer, toxicity, is not limited to an employment situation; it can manifest itself within volunteer establishments, families, civic groups, and even faith-based environments. The danger from excessive exposure to this productivity cancer is the risk of becoming an active contributor. Surviving this cancer often leads to fit (doing what is necessary to fit into the organization thus becoming part of the problem) or flight (removing yourself from the situation). Recognize the elements of a toxic environment and adjust accordingly.

Often toxic cultures are not immediately apparent, and in many cases, present themselves as being completely different than their true reality. Think about a time when you served on a board, started a new position, or began work with a civic association that later turned out to be draining and unfulfilling. Consider your initial perception of that organization. Quite possibly, and most likely, the environment seemed very welcoming and the people appeared to be dedicated to the “work,” “cause,” or “team.” As time passed (the amount of time depends on the level of toxicity within the company), the cancer was no longer dormant and began to reveal the true culture.


Some characteristics of a toxic culture are:

    • Fear: people are afraid to rock the boat; often resulting in not being honest; especially when the opinion differs from people in leadership;
      • Undermining: people politicking behind the scenes to impede progress towards initiatives they do not want to see advanced;
        • Betrayal (throwing you under the bus): people highlighting their colleague’s mistakes/behaviors to people in leadership while showing support to their colleagues behind closed doors;
          • Patronizing: people telling leadership what they want to hear and pretending to support the leadership’s initiatives while doing the opposite; this is a big deal; people in leadership should have a mechanism for evaluating a plan’s implementation in their organization (Were all details followed?; Were extra details added that should not have been included?);
            • Dishonesty: people lacking integrity and intentionally misrepresenting others (bosses, colleagues, or subordinates);
              • Unhealthy competition: people engaging in behavior that will help them rise to the top even if it will destroy the team and others; and
                • Lack of collaboration: people unwilling to support others in succeeding which is often demonstrated through statements that showcase the sentiment of “too busy,” yet they have time to implement new initiatives that they sponsor.

                Any of the above symptoms might appear in a healthy culture at some point. Toxicity develops into a toxic culture when there is the lack of recognition that it exists, when there is a hope that it will fix itself, the belief that it will be resolved through a reorganization or restructuring, and/or when leadership allows the toxicity to brew and take root through their unwillingness to take action. The danger is that once toxicity is rooted within an establishment, it requires tremendous effort to uproot and transform the culture. Consequences of a toxic culture are represented as inconsistent performance, low morale, high attrition, withdrawn employees, costly mistakes, retired in place behavior (physically present but mentally checked out), and more.

                Organizations should not mistakenly assume that achieving goals is an indication of a toxic free culture. Likewise, people in positions of authority should not solely trust the culture of their company on the word of their subordinates.

                Leadership should establish as top priority, regular culture check engagements. Culture checks require the leadership to get out of their office and engage with their teams. It is important to add that the culture checks must be free of motives and authentic. Otherwise, the positive action (culture checks) turns into an ingredient for creating a toxic culture. There should be intentional opportunities to listen to what people are saying (not saying) and how they are behaving (not behaving). Culture maintenance should be an aspect of everyone’s position, regardless of their level of authority within the organization, however, it should be a high priority for the senior leadership.

                While toxic behaviors can be present within any environment, team, organization, group, or entity, they do not prevail if the culture has implemented safety measures against toxicity. Toxic culture is a cancer to any association. It impacts productivity on multiple levels and destroys a company’s competitive advantage over time. A toxic free culture does not mean that the organization is free of mistakes, turnovers, or disgruntled employees; it means that the business does not allow these behaviors and circumstances to take residency within their company’s structure.

                There are many actions that an organization can take to protect the culture. Below are a few steps that can be used as safeguards:

                  • Leadership (people in positions of authority)
                    • Know your team! Do not limit your pulse of the organization to information received only from those reporting to you; they have a vested interest in feeding you one-sided information;
                      • Establish a culture of collaboration by promoting and rewarding genuine acts of teamwork. Position demonstrated collaboration as high ranking within your performance management system. Establish clear criteria of what collaboration means within your organization to avoid people abdicating their responsibilities;
                        • Establish a system where people are encouraged and rewarded to respectfully speak up without retaliation;
                          • Establish and maintain a system where staff are required to resolve differences with one another versus allowing staff to come to you to discuss another member of the team. Define clear parameters of how this level of communication is expected to work;
                            • Model the behavior that you expect of your subordinates and all employees. To demonstrate behavior opposite than what you expect of others and allowing your managers to do the same are essential ingredients for a toxic culture.
                              • Employees
                                • Take the time to learn the culture of your organization especially if you are new;
                                  • When interviewing, be intentional by asking questions about the culture of the business to get a true sense of the culture. The responses and behaviors of interviewers can be very telling;
                                    • Recognize that you are responsible for the culture of your organization. Commit to not being a bystander of toxic behavior; 
                                      • Don’t be a toxic behavior contributor. Avoid toxic behaviors: gossip, deceitfulness (intentionally misrepresenting others), being a bystander, undermining your colleagues, and avoiding the truth (lacking the courage to speak up).

                                      Once you establish a toxic free culture, protect it! I once heard the saying that people do what you inspect not what you expect. People in leadership positions, be diligent about creating and maintaining a cancer free culture. Do not allow cancerous behaviors to prevail within your organization. There must be commitment at the highest level of leadership to eradicate toxicity from the establishment. It begins with an awareness that toxicity is a deadly element and must be removed. Once it is gone, protect your business from its deadly re-entrance by maintaining consistent culture checks.

                                      The Marlo Company (TMC) understands the destructive impact toxicity has on an organization’s culture, especially if not given the proper attention. TMC has a variety of tools and resources which can assist you in creating and maintaining a toxic free culture. Contact us today for a free initial assessment!

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