How to Revive a Toxic Work Culture in 5 Steps

Look around your office.

Do you see signs of a toxic work environment? Are your employees tired? Discouraged? Burnt out?

If you see these symptoms in more than one or two employees, there’s a strong chance that a toxic culture may have crept into your workplace.

That’s a problem for your business and your employees.

Most entrepreneurs and business owners working to start a business spend little time thinking about team chemistry and the workplace culture they want to build. As a result, it’s rare that a business plan for a new business will focus on culture as a differentiator.

Good work culture is essential.

Unhappy workers are less productive, make more mistakes, and are more likely to seek employment elsewhere.

Once the word gets out, it can be difficult for a company to recover from a poor work culture reputation. Robert Glazer points out:

In the age of companies like Glassdoor, an anonymous company feedback website, employees are able to share what they like, and really don’t like, about working for a company. This can make it very difficult, or even impossible, to recruit quality candidates if those reviews reflect a toxic company culture.

It’s vital that you act quickly to turn around the negative work environment before productivity lags and employees start leaving for sunnier shores.

But before you can jump into changing anything about your work culture, you need to understand what culture is.

John Kotter of Kotter International defines culture this way:

Culture consists of group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.

This definition lays out an essential aspect of culture – it exists on more than one level. Culture isn’t just behaviors. It’s also a supporting infrastructure of beliefs and values that enable those behaviors.

To effect a real and lasting change, your business must be willing to tackle its cultural issues on both levels.

But, don’t worry – you don’t have to go it alone.

Here are five steps that will help you reclaim a toxic work culture.

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Step one: identify problem behaviors

What’s your brand of toxicity?

Every company is a unique creature. No two are exactly alike. When a company’s culture turns toxic, it takes its own unique path to get there. And that journey determines what form that toxicity will take.

Every bad work culture is just as unique as the company to which it belongs. As a result, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for repairing a damaged work culture. The first step is always to examine your business’s culture to identify your specific challenges.

So, start by taking a good hard look around you. And remember to keep an open mind – you might be unpleasantly surprised by what you find. Before you can make any changes for the better, you have to face these uncomfortable truths head-on.

Here are some common problems to keep an eye out for:

  • Gossiping and/or social cliques
  • Aggressive bullying behavior 
  • Poor communication and unclear expectations between management and employees
  • Dictatorial management techniques that don’t embrace employee feedback
  • Excessive absenteeism, illness, or fatigue
  • Favoritism and imbalanced working conditions (double standards or  discriminatory policies)
  • Workaholic behavior that sacrifices healthy work/life balance
  • Unrealistic workloads or deadlines (and the accompanying stress)
  • Little (or strained) interaction between employees or between employees and management
  • Unsafe or morally questionable working conditions
  • Wage gaps between genders, ethnicities, or any criteria not related to job demands and performance

You probably won’t find all of these items in your workplace. And, you may very well find problems we haven’t listed here. Whatever problems you do identify – take note. Those issues will inform your custom plan to rescue your work culture.

Once you’ve identified your company’s cultural weak points, it’s time to ask the next vital question – how did this happen?

Step two: evaluate the underlying support network

A toxic culture can’t take root without a fertile environment.

Remember John Kotter’s definition of culture – “group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.” None of the symptoms of a toxic workplace culture can survive without an infrastructure that supports them.

So, now that you’ve identified the specific problems, it’s time to dig deeper and evaluate what shared values and actions are helping to feed and support those behaviors. But where to look?

Examine your company’s leadership and the values they bring to the office. You can then work your way from the top of the corporate structure to the bottom, looking for issues like:

  • Discriminatory beliefs leading to imbalanced work policies and or compensation
  • Dehumanizing employees (treating them as assets instead of people)
  • Information guarding causing poor communication and unclear expectations
  • Aggressive or hostile leadership styles that create resentment and fear and undermine respect
  • The belief that employees are lazy, stupid, and/or expendable
  • Resentment of Authority that creates conflict and friction between employees and superiors
  • Contrariness leading to a negative environment for all involved
  • Lack of accountability creates resentment among employees
  • Lack of appreciation for (or recognition of) good work

These problematic attitudes, actions, and beliefs set the foundation to build a negative and stressful work culture. Keep a record of these toxic attitudes and bring it with you to your repair strategy meeting.

Step three: plan your repair strategy

With a clear understanding of the illness, you can now strategize your treatment plan to reclaim your workplace culture for the side of good.

And remember that change is hard work, so don’t try to fix everything all at once. Prioritize.

Erika Andersen writes:

First, you have to determine those ‘accepted behaviors’ that, if you changed them, would have the biggest positive impact on the culture.

Those are the pieces to tackle first. Once the wheels of change are in motion, the smaller issues will likely begin to right themselves. Here are some strategic antidotes to many of the most common problems in a toxic workplace:

1. Listen to Your Employees – Hear their grievances, validate their experiences, and make the changes necessary to address their issues. Depending on your business, this can come in informal one-on-one conversations, a town hall meeting with HR, or simple blind surveys. However, you go about it, listen, validate and work together to find solutions.

2. Assign Realistic Workloads and Deadlines – This may mean taking the time to get to know what your employees actually do. What tasks are they responsible for, and how long do those tasks take? There are only 60 minutes in each hour. You may want it done yesterday; but, that’s not possible. Don’t assign workloads or deadlines that require a time machine to complete on time.

3. Communicate Transparently – Your employees can’t do their jobs well without understanding the context in which they operate. Having the information to do one’s job reduces confusion and frustration, making employees happier and more efficient workers. Hold weekly meetings, send frequent memos or a company newsletter – maybe all of the above. Encourage employees to communicate with each other and make sure you’re sharing the information they need to know.

4. Acknowledge Work Well Done – A study by the Boston Consulting Group reports “appreciation for your work” as the most important element to happiness on the job. Find ways to show appreciation. Tell employees what they are doing well – they’ll feel appreciated (and as a bonus, they’ll be more likely to keep on doing it). Build a supportive environment by sharing employee successes with the group. Make positive encouragement a group activity.

5. Treat All Employees By the Same RulesPlaying favorites can breed resentment in the workplace faster than greased lightning. Examine your company policies – do they unfairly benefit one group more than others? Be open to feedback on this point because your employees may see problems that you don’t. Do what you can to even the playing field. And, once the rules are fair, require all employees to adhere to them.

6. Foster Emotional Intelligence – The BCG study we mentioned above included both “Good relationships with colleagues” and “Good relationships with superiors” among the top 5 elements leading to job satisfaction. Banish bullying, disrespect, and dismissive behavior. Prioritize emotional intelligence. Provide resources to help employees expand their EQ. Improved emotional intelligence can cure several ills.

While these are all great suggestions for every company, don’t try to do everything all at once. Be mindful of your business’s challenges and choose your action items accordingly. You can (and should!) implement the rest later.

Step four: implement your plan

John Kotter offers two basic approaches to get started:

How does culture change? A powerful person at the top, or a large enough group from anywhere in the organization, decides the old ways are not working, figures out a change vision, starts acting differently, and enlists others to act differently.

If you are the man or woman in charge, you have a powerful platform to motivate change. Just realize that you will need to live and model the changes you want to see if anyone takes those changes seriously. Actions speak louder than words – it’s not enough to tell people that the culture needs to change.

Kotter addresses that potential misstep as well:

What does NOT work in changing a culture? Some group decides what the new culture should be. It turns a list of values over to the communications or HR departments with the order that they tell people what the new culture is. They cascade the message down the hierarchy, and little to nothing changes.

But you do want things to change. So remember this gem of information from Erika Andersen, author of Growing Great Employees:

People will change their behavior only if they see the new behavior as easy, rewarding and normal.

As social creatures, humans have a strong drive to be a part of the group. Normalize the new behaviors you seek by modeling them yourself. Find the influencers in your business and encourage them to promote the new behaviors as well.

Make it easy for your employees to implement the changes you want to see by removing barriers to success. This, again, will require that you listen to your employees to know what those barriers are.

The “rewarding” factor is already built-in – most employees prefer to work in a positive, supportive work environment. Your job is to help your employees see how the changes you’re proposing will deliver on that promise.

Also, be prepared to part ways with any employees who will not support your new and improved corporate culture. One bad apple, as the saying goes, spoils the whole bunch. All employees should be given ample opportunity to adjust. But, people who work proactively to undermine your cultural improvement efforts are a threat to your success and will be happier elsewhere.

All employees should be given ample opportunity to adjust. But, people who work proactively to undermine your cultural improvement efforts are a threat to your success and will find a better culture fit elsewhere.

You can see a real-life example of this just recently. Google has made it their cultural mission to increase and embrace diversity among their employees. A young engineer took issue with Google’s diversity efforts and wrote (and shared) a 10-page diatribe criticizing Google’s diversity policies and questioning women’s fitness to work in the tech industry.

Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, explained that while the company welcomed the open exchange of ideas, the memo had created a hostile work environment for many employees – a direct threat to its mission of creating a safe culture welcoming diversity. As a result, the memo’s author was fired.

Be willing to protect your new culture. If there are a few casualties along the way, it’s a price worth paying.

Step five: reflect and adapt

Give your new policies and practices time to take root. Change takes time.

But don’t expect to get everything perfect right away. After a few months, take stock of where you are. What has changed? What hasn’t?

Meet with those influencers that you enlisted to help with your implementation. Reflect with them on how things have gone. Different perspectives can offer useful insight.

Assess your progress and adapt your efforts as needed. Keep the lines of communication open. Be willing to keep asking the questions that matter and change tactics where appropriate.

Cultural change is a big undertaking; but well worth the effort. Perseverance will lead you to success.

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