The past few weeks I have been reflecting and speaking to a few of my colleagues and friends about the impact toxic cultures in companies can have on people’s mental health, motivation (or lack of) and ultimately the bottom line. More specifically – the superficial actions that some leaders take to address employee dissatisfaction and attrition stemming from such toxic cultures. Companies who fail to acknowledge the true impact of toxic cultures and attempt to “fix” selective symptoms instead of getting to the root cause of the issues. Such companies deploy mostly extrinsic motivators such as (but not limited to) – throwing company branded merchandise at their employees – yes including socks, more money at the wrong people, promotions of those not qualified into roles they are unable to succeed in, and let’s not forget the awkward office lunches with a couple of toxic leaders thrown in – who on any given day would walk past you without as much as an acknowledgment! Needless to say such initiatives don’t succeed as they will never be able to win the hearts and minds of their workforce by creating true and genuine intrinsic value.
We have all heard about “the great resignation” over the past 2 years – now we are hearing about how Toxic cultures are driving the great resignation.
Toxic culture, was named in a recent MIT sloan management article as the single best predictor of attrition during the first six months of the Great Resignation — 10 times more powerful than how employees viewed their compensation in predicting employee turnover.1
I’m a scientist at heart, so although I had a “hunch” about the impact of toxic culture on employee health and company profitability – I needed to see the data, analysis and scientific proof to truly comprehend its magnitude.
So I embarked on some research to understand more. Needless to say this topic has been researched and discussed TO DEATH for many years – yet it’s still a HUGE problem in many companies – warranting even more research and more articles to be written about it
What is Toxic culture?
Personally, I would define it very simply, as culture that makes you sick. Physically, mentally or both.
My research uncovered many definitions from many reputable sources – although the words used may differ slightly – they all agree on the impact of Toxic culture on employee health and company profitability.
This MIT Sloan article – “Why every leader needs to worry about toxic culture” – Published March 2022, defines it by a list of attributes that they refer to as the “Toxic Five” – a bit like a molotov cocktail…
- Disrespectful: Lack of consideration, courtesy, and dignity for others
- Non-Inclusive: Gender, age, disability, racial LGBTQI+ inequity, cronyism and nepotism, general non-inclusive culture
- Unethical: Dishonesty, lack of regulatory compliance, unethical behaviour
- Cut-Throat: Backstabbing behaviour and ruthless competition.
- Abusive: Bullying, harassment, and hostility.
Bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety. For a full list of subtle/passive aggressive behaviours that are included under this definition please visit HeadUp.org
In this Forbes article – Is your company culture dysfunctional? Here are the 5 types of toxic cultures – published 30th of November 2021
The article describes Toxic workplace cultures as:
“rife with hostility, cliques, gossip, mistrust, and selfishness. They’re a breeding ground for dysfunction due to poor communication, power struggles, negativity, and abusive leadership. Due to this, collaboration, productivity, and innovation falter while fear, manipulation, and blame grow. All of which reduces employee loyalty and leaves them feeling emotionally drained.”
The Forbes article describes 5 types of Toxic culture:
- Hustle Culture: Has micromanagement at its core – Profit driven and exploits workers by having them work longer hours with little return. Being a workaholic is glamorised, resulting in employees being stretched thin and eventually burn out.
- Blame and “every worker for themselves” culture: When leaders refuse to take responsibility and “That’s not my responsibility” is a common attitude. People prevent committing to deadlines or expectations so they can easily place blame or shift accountability. It starts from the top and establishes a precedence that mistakes are bad and unwelcome.
- Clique culture: The opposite of an inclusive culture. It creates an environment where people are uncomfortable being their authentic selves. Also commonly known as the “bro culture” – where white male employees are seen as superior to women.
- Authoritative culture: Power and control are at its core. Bullying and discrimination are rampant. Also filled with favouritism, nepotism, and “yes (wo)men”. Employees are punished for honesty either overtly or covertly. The person who speaks the truth is labelled negative or troublemaker, or the employee who dares question the status quo is labelled not a team player and passed over for promotion or worse pushed out.
- Fear based culture: employees are silenced by intimidation, abuse, gaslighting, and domination which leads to:
- Employees afraid to tell the truth or report bullying, harassment, or misconduct.
- Being too focused on their daily goals rather than the bigger picture
- Doing whatever it takes to appease their boss and avoid blame
- A rampant rumour mill that appears to be more credible than what’s conveyed from management and leadership
Finally, in this HBR article title: 3 ways senior leaders create a toxic culture – published May 2018. The article describes the THREE most common toxic habits that toxic leaders can exhibit:
- Scattered priorities: The implications for an organization whose leadership team is poorly focused are serious: Wasted resources, wasted effort, and widespread confusion become the norm.
- Unhealthy Rivalries: Unhealthy competition erodes trust. If team members distrust the motivations and unspoken agendas of teammates, they will act with self-protection, even self-interest, to avoid risking personal failure. And when things don’t go as hoped, people point at one another in blame rather than healthy accountability. It is nearly impossible to make and execute critical decisions when team members don’t trust one another
- Unproductive conflict: Speaking negatively behind one another’s backs, withholding honest perspectives, or pocket vetoing decisions after they are made should be unacceptable.
Toxic culture by the (Scary) numbers:
The link between toxic culture and employee attrition is not new.
By one estimate, employee turnover triggered by a toxic culture cost U.S. employers nearly $50 billion per year before the Great Resignation began.2 (MIT article)
Another source – SHRM, estimates, 58% of employees quit a job due to a toxic workplace culture and the annual cost of culture-related turnover is $223 billion. (Forbes article)
Regardless of whether it is $50billion or $220 billion or anywhere in between – we can all agree that it’s a LARGE scary number.
But the scarier stats – the ones that I am more interested in and concerned about are the stats relating Toxic culture to employee harm – companies who hire healthy and perfectly capable employees and leave them injured at the end of their tenure.
By injured, I’m referring to mental health and/or physical injury as a result of the toxic culture they have experienced.
A large body of research shows that working in a toxic atmosphere is associated with elevated levels of stress, burnout, and mental health issues.
Toxicity also translates into physical illness. When employees experience injustice in the workplace, their odds of suffering a major disease (including coronary disease, asthma, diabetes, and arthritis) increase by 35% to 55%.2
What to do if you find yourself in a Toxic workplace?
Ask yourself the following questions:
Am I a passive or active contributor ?
- Passive contributor: Mostly unaware of the toxic culture around you or tuned in and blinded by the wrong signals such as People’s output and success and missing the more subtle signals of how these people treat others etc
- Active contributor: You know what is happening and you are actively playing the game. To that I say – you are doing harm – go back and re-read the stats. Review your actions and ask yourself what is driving your behaviour?
Am I able to influence my leaders to make the change?
Do I have a safe space to express my concerns and enact the change that I need to see?
- If your answer is yes – Great! Push ahead and express your concerns and call the toxic behaviours out. It’s a long hard battle but one worthy of fighting ONLY if you are able to see the change occurring – that is – if you raise your concerns, and your manager/leader agrees with you and confirms your concerns– yet they go on participating/enforcing/supporting the status quo and no change occurs – then chances are – change will not come.
- If your answer is No – my advice is get out.
- D. Sull, C. Sull, and B. Zweig, “Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Jan. 11, 2022, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.
- Donald Sull, Charles Sull, William Cipolli, and Caio Brighenti, “Why every leader needs to worry about toxic culture”, MIT Sloan Management review, March 16,22, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/why-every-leader-needs-to-worry-about-toxic-culture/#ref1
- Workplace bullying, Heads Up, https://www.headsup.org.au/supporting-others/workplace-bullying
- Heidi Lynne Curter, “Is your workplace dysfunctional? Here are the 5 types of toxic cultures”, Nov30, 2021 https://www.forbes.com/sites/heidilynnekurter/2021/11/30/is-your-workplace-dysfunctional-here-are-the-5-types-of-toxic-cultures/?sh=1fb2ad7f2af4
- Ron Carucci,”Three ways senior leaders create a toxic culture”, May 01, 2018 https://hbr.org/2018/05/3-ways-senior-leaders-create-a-toxic-culture
- Beth Mirza, “Toxic workplace cultures hurt employees and company profits” , Sept 25, 2019, https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/toxic-workplace-culture-report.aspx