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Toxic Culture in the Workplace: What Can We Do?

It appears that we are lifting rocks in almost every avenue of society and discovering how prevalent toxic culture has become, whether it be in political parties, religious organisations, sports organisations or even amongst celebrities and their teams.

Working in reverse from this discovery, can we unpack why these cultures occur? It is important to recognise that a complex configuration of structure, practices, processes, values, beliefs, and assumptions make up an organisation’s culture and shape behaviour. Occasionally unethical behaviour can work their way into the social norms of an organisation.

To begin to change or prevent toxic culture in the workplace, we need to understand how and why bad behaviour is tolerated and normalised.

A boss shouting at an employee in a toxic culture

Why is toxic culture tolerated?

Organisations are not just large systems driven by an innate hive mind, their cultures are defined by interactions between individuals and how these interactions shape and impact each person’s decisions. Therefore, individuals have a choice on whether they will be passive and submit to another person’s perspective or push for their own. Often, these decisions are impacted by external contexts such as fears about job security, financial security or other reprisals which may have an impact on one’s career and lifestyle.

This is how toxic working cultures rise and remain. If employees are working in an organisation with a lack of psychological safety that doesn’t encourage courageous conversations, workers may ask themselves “If I stand up and oppose or challenge this behaviour, am I going to be supported? Am I going to be safe?”

Other external pressures which may drive one to submit to or partake in bad behaviours are pressures to meet targets. An output-driven culture coupled with a prevailing punitive blame culture can lead to questionable behaviour.

Toxic cultures in organisations are very rarely about the actions of one or two individuals. Unravelling the values, beliefs, behaviours and practices that require cultural change can be complex, but change is possible.

A toxic culture can be driven by money

How can we change an organisation’s culture?

Organisations need to ensure that they have employees and stakeholders who can redefine what success looks like. They must try to ensure that their vision of success is sustainable and that targets can be reached with happy clientele, happy stakeholders and a positive reputation in the media.

One way of doing this is to ensure that the organisation’s values and policies are ethically and morally robust and that members of the Executive Board, senior leaders and stakeholders all engage in healthy discourse around the ethical and moral outcomes of the organisation.

Senior leaders must be strong enough to not submit to bad behaviours but to also provide enough psychological safety so that middle and lower-level managers feel that they can challenge their decision-making. Therefore, organisations must put in place whistleblowing policies and decide to support them, so that employees feel safe enough to not just express their voice and concerns but feel protected when speaking to power.

Another key element in avoiding toxic or unethical behaviour relates to the way that errors and mistakes are handled within an organisation. Is there an emphasis on learning from mistakes and correcting elements of the system or is the tendency to conceal errors due to fears of punishment?

Speaking up in a non toxic culture

Individual choices

With the recent exposure to how widespread toxicity has become in our society, individuals need to realise that it’s okay to demand dignity at work and that they should not feel physically or verbally insulted or intimidated. That they shouldn’t be belittled!

That is not what work is about, and if organisations are either encouraging or tolerating that behaviour then individuals should leave and find work elsewhere. Organisations cannot afford for everyone to leave, nor can everyone afford to leave toxic organisations at the first sign of trouble, so we have got to start changing the culture of these organisations as they have such a big impact on our lives.

Going forward, it may be about different styles of leadership where leaders choose to champion empowerment, dignity, kindness, and compassion, even when that may not be the easiest option or the most expedient solution for an organisation. However, by deciding to promote this style of leadership, and subsequentially bake it into the culture, leaders and organisations can drive for sustainable results which are for the betterment of us all.

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