Can you cure a toxic work culture?
In short: Yes, you can. But it’s going to take hard work and consistency.
How do you know if your culture is toxic? Your people will tell you. Here are some things to look out for: Deadlines regularly slip, employee turnover is high, the rumor mill is active, people openly complain about the company and you always plan to have a “meeting after the meeting.”
To be fair, every culture is a work in progress and continuously evolving. What separates a toxic culture from one that is experiencing growing pains is the consistency of the negative aspects and the relative nonintervention to correct the issues.
In toxic cultures, information is not shared, people do not feel emotionally and psychologically safe, and ultimately, the business suffers. Rebuilding trust is possible. Steady, consistent focus in the right places, will help you gain traction in support of your efforts to be better.
Here’s what to focus on first when changing a toxic company culture.
How to fix a toxic workplace environment
1. Accept accountability
One of the first steps is for executive leaders to hold themselves fully accountable for the current state of the culture and the experience of employees.
Leaders must transparently describe how the current-state culture negatively impacts customers, employees, and the overall business. They also must start to describe a future state and how people acting in new ways will ultimately benefit those same groups.
I spent time working with leaders in a family-owned manufacturing business who recognized their problem, but were hesitant to accept responsibility for what was a toxic culture more than 3 years in the making.
First, they placed blame on the line managers, then the regional leaders, but when they dug deep into the employee survey comments, they began to accept that their managers were simply carrying out the senior leaders directives.
Mantras that seemed innocuous at first glance, like “I don’t care how you get it done, just get it done,” sowed the roots of favoritism, inequality, and unnecessary risk taking – the very symptoms their people were experiencing.
“Employees don’t create the mess, and middle managers can’t fix it. Own the problem and commit to doing the right thing”
It’s common knowledge that culture flows from the top down, so the more quickly leaders understand that employees don’t create the mess, and middle managers can’t fix it, the faster they can get to the next step of doing something about it. Own the problem and commit to doing the right thing. This is the easiest part for most companies.
2. Do what you say you’re going to do
And if you’re not committed to doing it, don’t say it. This is not the time to make big promises. It’s a time to return to the basics of credibility, respect and fairness.
Rebuilding trust is all about consistency, and that shows up most observably in your actions. All leaders have to understand that they will be operating under a microscope with their actions being evaluated and people waiting for a return to “business as usual.” They are also waiting for signals that you are changing.
Most frequently, companies realign their actions around their purpose. Maybe it’s a return to your values, or working on a new set. In any case, you must find something and commit to it.
"Rebuilding trust is all about consistency, and that shows up most observably in your actions."
An executive at a rapid scaling telecom company admitted that the leadership team became hyper-focused on securing funding and delivering the product, so over the course of 18 to 24 months, they unwittingly replaced their values with a “whatever it takes, get it done” ethos and people followed suit.
This led to leaders undermining their credibility, treating people as pawns, and clearly unfair treatment for employees and teams.
3. Commit to Communication
Communication is always key in any transformation, but when you’re rebuilding trust in a toxic culture, transparent communication is the right place to focus. Transparency engenders trust, particularly transparency around where you are making progress and where you are falling short.
Sharing how you made decisions is an excellent way to demonstrate your commitment to a new way of doing things.
One multinational hospitality company I worked with reframed their culture change around the shift worker experience, asking, “How will this decision positively impact shift employees’ workplace experience?
“Sharing how you made decisions is an excellent way to demonstrate your commitment to a new way of doing things."
And when decisions didn’t align to the experience they wanted to create for those workers, they didn’t do it, even if they would have typically done it or it made financial sense. It was a clear departure from their typical “the guest comes first” mantra.
This is where your middle and frontline leaders can get involved. Activate your leaders by asking them to share how they are making decisions and how they are being more transparent than before, giving more information and more context to their people. When executives consistently articulate the how and why behind decisions, you invite people into the process of reshaping the culture.
It’s not too late to fix your company culture
If done consistently, these three things will give you the firm foundation you need to rebuild trust. For guidance on where to begin, take this example from Great Place to Work-Certified™ workplace, Brains on Fire who improved their culture by listening to their people, taking accountability and being transparent. Let us help you get the employee experience insights that can help you transform your company’s culture with our survey and employee engagement tool.