Workplace culture affects employees and teams in a variety of ways. A healthy team is productive, has high employee engagement, and team members enjoy going to work. In a toxic workplace, productivity is stifled, drama ensues, and team members no longer enjoy (and perhaps even dread) going to work.
No leader wants a toxic workplace. Yet, few leaders have the courage to address the poison that creeps into their workplace culture through negativity, poor attitudes, and manipulation.
So, what are some toxic behaviors to be on the lookout for? In your team, leaders should look for individuals who:
- are “culture busters,” or think of themselves before others
- easily lose their temper,
- frequently lie,
- shield information from others as a power move, and/or
- gossip about others and are negative
- are cynical and constantly gripe and complain.
Additionally, leaders themselves can exhibit toxic behaviors. Two telltale signs of a toxic leader are when 1) employees don’t have the freedom to speak up because they fear what might happen, and 2) if they do, the leader/s will take all the credit.
When left unaddressed, toxic behaviors and attitudes can spread through an organization like wildfire. It’s important for leaders to understand the negative implications of toxic workplace culture on employee engagement as well as how to address those behaviors.
In some organizations, toxic behaviors are obvious. But in others, years of overwhelming grace or avoidance of confrontation causes leaders to push these behaviors under the rug.
The following are three “warning signs” that can help you, as a leader, spot toxicity in your culture before it spreads. With each, you’ll see some key ideas and tactics to help your organization move from toxic to healthy.
1. Without boundaries, individuals are free to act how they please
Just like a parent gives a young child rules and regulations for appropriate behavior, leaders need to provide boundaries for employees so they know what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior within the organizational culture.
Developing organizational values is a key strategy for helping your team understand and own what is important to the organizational culture, and what is expected of employees.
So how do you make sure individuals are held accountable to organizational values? You have to first clearly define them. When values are defined, everyone knows what is acceptable behavior and employees will be more likely to defend the values.
A great example of an organization that does this well is Gateway Church in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. They developed a “social covenant” that clearly defined which areas of the culture were open to interpretation, what behaviors were deemed “in-bounds” or “out-of-bounds,” and how to address behaviors that are “out-of-bounds.”
When members of the team learned which behaviors and values were acceptable (based on the Social Covenant), they were more likely to defend those values. In fact, similar to a referee, team members can throw “penalty flags” when certain behaviors occur in team settings, allowing the team to address the concern and regroup. You can learn more about Gateway Church’s approach here.
Your organization can also develop a strategy for employee ownership of organizational values. But you have to first define and communicate values to your team.
2. Failing to address “culture busters” creates bigger problems in the long-term
Without a plan to address toxic behaviors, or “culture-busters”, problems will continue. It takes courage to address what is going on in your organization.
As a leader, you need to humbly address the fact that your organization is in need of improvement. With grace, it’s time to cast a vision for the culture you are headed toward and start fresh.
Though challenging, you must also guard your culture, even at the expense of your best-performing employees. If exceptions are made for certain individuals, based solely on their performance, trust will break down. There are no exceptions to the cultural rules- including yourself.
It is often helpful to have systems in place to help keep your organization on track toward your vision of a healthy culture. These include:
- Reviewing organizational values during performance reviews
- Honoring outstanding value holders during company meetings or “award” ceremonies
- Conducting 360 Reviews
These practices reinforce the values, reward those who uphold the values, and outline what behaviors are acceptable through real-life examples.
3. Lack of transparency = lack of trust
When leaders are not transparent, or withhold important information from their teams, trust breaks down. At the same time, leaders who are unwilling to facilitate or receive feedback are not only doing themselves a disservice but their entire team. The opposite of a blindspot is the truth, and the only way to identify the truth is to ask for feedback.
Perhaps the easiest way to facilitate feedback from one’s team is by surveying. The Best Christian Workplaces Employee Engagement Survey measures an organization’s health based on the 8 Drivers of a Flourishing Workplace. If, for example, an organization scores low in Inspirational Leadership, which measures a leader’s character and competence, it can be a red flag that some toxic behaviors, or culture busters, are already at work inside the organization.
In light of this, how would you respond to these few sample questions from the BCWI Employee Engagement Survey that correlate with toxic behaviors:
- Leaders at my organization model humility.
- Leaders at my organization demonstrate compassion for people at all levels
- Leaders at my organization model fairness and integrity.
- My organization is well-managed
- At my organization, there is generally good teamwork across departments.
- The people I work with exhibit good conflict resolution skills.
In the end, it’s all about leadership. Though toxic workplaces are a combination of both poor leadership and overall workplace culture, it is in the hands of leaders to choose to courageously address this complex issue.
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