Overcoming toxicity in organisational culture

5 Minutes
Learn from success stories and understand the critical steps to foster a healthy, productive workplace environment.

The hidden venom in organisational culture

Picture this: a workplace where dread replaces enthusiasm, where whispers overshadow open conversations, and where mistrust undermines collaboration. This is the landscape of a toxic organisational culture, a silent predator lurking in the corridors of businesses, big and small. But what exactly makes a culture toxic? It's an environment marred by negative behaviours and attitudes – think chronic stress, widespread disengagement, and a lack of trust – that can poison the very roots of an organisation. The impact? A plummet in productivity, innovation, and employee well-being. Recognising and transforming this toxicity is not just beneficial; it's essential for the survival and thriving of any organisation. [Einarsen, S., et al., 2011]

Identification: spotting the red flags in depth

Identifying toxic elements in an organisational culture requires a keen eye for certain warning signs that, if left unchecked, can erode the very foundation of a company. Here's a deeper look into these red flags:

Persistent Negative Attitudes: This goes beyond the occasional bad day. In a toxic culture, negativity permeates the air. Employees are consistently cynical, and pessimism overshadows optimism. This attitude can manifest in constant complaining, a lack of enthusiasm for new initiatives, and a general sense of hopelessness about the company's future. [Miner, A. G., et al., 2005]

High Turnover Rates: A clear indicator of a problematic culture is when employees leave en masse. High turnover is often a symptom of deeper issues such as lack of recognition, poor management practices, or a disconnect with the company's values. It's not just about people leaving; it's about understanding why they're leaving. [Cotton, J. L., & Tuttle, J. M., 1986]

Poor Communication: In a toxic environment, communication breakdown is common. This can take the form of managers withholding information, a lack of transparency in decision-making, or even spreading misinformation. It's a culture where employees feel they're always the last to know and where honest conversations are discouraged or penalized. [Hargie, O., & Tourish, D., 2009]

Lack of Employee Engagement: Disengagement is a silent killer in toxic cultures. Employees who are disconnected from their work often exhibit minimal effort, lack of initiative, and indifference towards the company's goals. This disengagement can be due to a lack of meaningful work, absence of growth opportunities, or feeling undervalued. [Kahn, W. A., 1990]

Fear-Based Management: In such cultures, fear is the primary motivator. Employees might be scared to speak up, take risks, or challenge the status quo due to fear of repercussions. This fear can stem from harsh criticism, threats of job loss, or an overly competitive environment that pits employees against each other. [Ashkanasy, N. M., & Nicholson, G. J., 2003]

Strategies for change: turning the tide in detail

Addressing and transforming a toxic culture is a complex process that requires strategic planning and execution. Here are expanded strategies for initiating this change:

Leadership Commitment: Transformation begins with leaders who are willing to acknowledge the issues and take responsibility for change. This involves self-reflection, seeking feedback, and being open to altering their leadership style. Leaders must become role models for the values and behaviours they wish to see in their organisation. [Kotter, J. P., 1995]

Open Communication Channels: Establishing platforms for open and honest communication is crucial. This could involve regular town hall meetings, anonymous feedback systems, or open forums for discussion. The goal is to create an environment where employees feel safe to express their thoughts and ideas without fear of retribution. [Men, L. R., & Stacks, D. W., 2013]

Rebuild Trust: Trust is rebuilt through consistent and transparent actions. This means following through on promises, making decisions that are fair and equitable, and being open about the challenges the organisation faces. Trust also involves showing vulnerability as leaders, admitting mistakes, and demonstrating a commitment to improvement. [Mayer, R. C., et al., 1995]

Promote Employee Wellbeing: A focus on employee wellbeing is essential in detoxifying a culture. This can involve initiatives like flexible working arrangements, mental health support, recognition programs, and opportunities for professional development. A supportive environment is one where employees feel valued and cared for. [Wright, T. A., & Cropanzano, R., 2000]

Reinforce Positive Behaviours: It's important to recognise and reward behaviours that align with the desired culture. This could be through formal recognition programs, informal shout-outs, or tying these behaviours to performance reviews and promotions. The idea is to celebrate the positives and provide clear examples of the desired culture in action. [Luthans, F., & Youssef-Morgan, C. M., 2017]

Conclusion: A concise roadmap to a healthier organisational culture

Transforming a toxic organisational culture is a journey of introspection, action, and commitment. It's about recognising the deep-seated issues that contribute to toxicity and addressing them through a holistic approach. Leadership plays a pivotal role in this transformation, setting the tone for openness, trust, and positive change. Open communication channels and rebuilding trust are essential steps in creating an environment where employees feel valued and heard.

Promoting employee wellbeing and reinforcing positive behaviours are crucial strategies in shifting the cultural norms towards a more positive and productive work environment. This transformation is not a quick fix but a continuous process that requires patience, dedication, and a focus on the human element of the organisation.

In essence, overcoming toxicity in an organisational culture is about creating a sustainable ecosystem where employees thrive and the organisation prospers. It's a challenging yet rewarding journey that leads to a more engaged, vibrant, and successful workplace.

In conclusion, overcoming toxic elements in an organisational culture is not just a necessity but a pivotal journey towards the revitalisation and long-term success of any organisation. This transformation is far from a superficial fix; it requires a deep, introspective, and persistent approach that touches every facet of the organisation. [Schein, E. H., 2010]

FAQs: addressing toxic Organisational culture

How can we identify a toxic culture early on?

Look for signs like persistent negative attitudes, high employee turnover, poor communication, lack of engagement, and fear-based management. Early detection is key to preventing a deep-rooted toxic culture.

What role do leaders play in transforming a toxic culture?

Leaders are crucial in setting the tone for change. They must acknowledge the issue, demonstrate commitment to transformation, and lead by example in fostering a positive, open, and trust-based culture.

Can an organisation's culture be transformed without changing its leadership?

While challenging, it is possible. However, it requires a concerted effort from all levels of the organisation, and often external support, such as consultants or coaches, to guide the process and hold leaders accountable.

How long does it typically take to change a toxic organisational culture?

There's no set timeline as it depends on the depth of the issues and the size of the organisation. It's a gradual process that can take months or even years, requiring ongoing commitment and effort.

What are some effective ways to rebuild trust in a toxic work environment?

Rebuilding trust involves consistent and transparent actions, open and honest communication, acknowledging past mistakes, and making tangible efforts to improve the work environment and relationships.

How can we measure the success of our efforts to change a toxic culture?

Success can be measured through improved employee engagement and satisfaction scores, reduced turnover rates, better communication, and feedback from employees about the work environment and culture.

Is it possible for a culture to revert back to being toxic after it has been transformed?

Yes, without ongoing effort and vigilance, a culture can revert. It's important to continually reinforce positive behaviours, maintain open communication, and address any negative patterns or behaviours promptly.

Can external factors contribute to a toxic culture, and how can they be managed?

External factors like market pressures, economic downturns, or societal changes can contribute to a toxic culture. Managing these involves being adaptable, maintaining clear communication, and supporting employees through changes.

What role do employees play in changing a toxic culture?

Employees are key players in cultural change. They can contribute by providing honest feedback, engaging in open dialogue, supporting new initiatives, and embodying the desired cultural values in their daily work.

How can we ensure that new hires don't perpetuate a previously toxic culture?

This involves careful hiring for cultural fit, thorough onboarding processes, and ongoing cultural training and reinforcement to integrate new hires into the transformed culture effectively.


Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C. L. (2011). The concept of bullying and harassment at work: The European tradition. In Bullying and harassment in the workplace (pp. 3-40). CRC Press.

Identification: Spotting the Red Flags in Depth

Persistent Negative Attitudes: Reference to the work of Miner, A. G., Glomb, T. M., & Hulin, C. (2005). Experience sampling mood and its correlates at work. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(2), 171-193.

High Turnover Rates: Cotton, J. L., & Tuttle, J. M. (1986). Employee turnover: A meta-analysis and review with implications for research. Academy of Management Review, 11(1), 55-70.

Poor Communication: Reference to the findings of Hargie, O., & Tourish, D. (2009). Auditing organizational communication: A handbook of research, theory, and practice. Routledge.

Lack of Employee Engagement: Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33(4), 692-724.

Fear-Based Management: Ashkanasy, N. M., & Nicholson, G. J. (2003). Climate of fear in organisational settings: Construct definition, measurement and a test of theory. Australian Journal of Psychology, 55(1), 24-29.

Strategies for Change: Turning the Tide in Detail

Leadership Commitment: Kotter, J. P. (1995). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, 73(2), 59-67.

Open Communication Channels: Men, L. R., & Stacks, D. W. (2013). The impact of leadership style and employee empowerment on perceived organizational reputation. Journal of Communication Management, 17(2), 171-192.

Rebuild Trust: Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709-734.

Promote Employee Well-being: Wright, T. A., & Cropanzano, R. (2000). Psychological well-being and job satisfaction as predictors of job performance. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5(1), 84.

Reinforce Positive Behaviors: Luthans, F., & Youssef-Morgan, C. M. (2017). Psychological capital: An evidence-based positive approach. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 339-366.

Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership. John Wiley & Sons

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