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Tackling a toxic culture: the tell-tale signs and what to do about it

A toxic culture can grind a business to a halt, but where do you start if you want to tackle toxic behaviours?

To tackle a toxic culture, you need to first understand what one is, and what behaviours you would see habitually displayed in an organisation. You also need to look at whether the behaviours are isolated to a division or are widespread across the business.

What is a toxic culture?

The definition of toxic describes something that would be ‘harmful in a pervasive or insidious way’. But when we talk about toxic cultures it can be very subjective. What is toxic to one person may feel completely different to another. But there are certainly common traits or behaviours that could often indicate a culture is toxic. 

Three tell-tale signs a company's culture is toxic:

1.    A lack of accountability from the top of the business

A business which has a culture that allows people to avoid taking accountability.   

You need people to take accountability and ownership of what they can influence if you want to build a culture of continuous improvement and learning. Two things that can unlock growth and innovation within a business.

A lack of accountability often means that teams and functional areas will work in silos, and not take responsibility for how their actions affect others.  

It can also be an indication that there is a lack of engagement across the business, and a feeling of apathy has crept into the day-to-day.

2.    Blame culture

If the first thing question that gets asked when something goes wrong is ‘whose fault was it?’ or ‘who did that?’... Run.

A blame culture can indicate so many flaws within a business- from lack of leadership and siloed working, through to an environment where there is a complete lack of psychological safety.

3.    No psychological safety, dialogue or debate

If people can’t comfortably and safely debate, challenge and speak up within a business, growth and progress will never be fully realised.

Ideas and improvements can come from anywhere and if there is no psychological safety in a business there will be an impact on the bottom-line, as well as employee and customer engagement.

The cost of a toxic culture

A toxic culture impacts several things – from attracting and retaining top talent, through to innovation, growth, and productivity. Left to continue long term a toxic culture can grind a business to a halt, stopping it from achieving its ambitions and delivering for customers.

How to turn around a toxic culture

There are three things you can do to start to tackle some of these issues.

1.    Get under the skin of what’s driving the behaviours you are seeing

You need to get to the root cause of the issue if you want to evolve the culture of your business.  

Finding out what is driving certain behaviours is critical if you want to make authentic and sustainable change. And if any of the behaviours outlined above exist within your business the chances are you will be engaging a cynical audience. So, you need to make sure the action that you take is meaningful and impactful.

Many businesses are paralysed by data now, from customer insight, engagement survey results, pulse checks to Glassdoor feedback. But nothing beats a real conversation. You can kick-off any culture diagnostic work by looking at the data, but that should be followed up with quickly getting together with your people to start to discuss and explore what it feels like to work within the business, and what drives that.

2.    Paint a vision of the future

Before you start a conversation, you need to paint a picture of the future. What behaviours do you need as a business to thrive? What will it feel like to work at the company, and how will you interact with one another?

Helping people to understand what you are trying to achieve will help you to structure that conversation in a more constructive and meaningful way. It will also allow people to decide whether the environment you are building is right for them, or what new skills they need to acquire.  

If you aren’t sure what behaviours are needed to help your business thrive, co-create them with your people. Using your strategy and purpose as an anchor, get your people to articulate what behaviours will need to be dominant in the business to enable you to achieve your objectives and live your purpose.

3.    Reimagine your employee experience

Culture is an outcome. You don’t create culture; it is the result of the conditions you create for certain behaviours to survive. So, when you know the behaviours you want to reward and celebrate, weave them deliberately and overtly into every stage of the employee journey. And be firm about upholding them.  


Creating a positive, rewarding, and empowering culture isn’tan easy or quick journey. You are looking at years not months. But you can makean impact fast if you are prepared to co create the journey with your people, havean executive team who are aligned and prepared to make tough decisions, have aclear purpose which is understood and a strategic road map that articulateswhat you need to do to realise your ambitions.   I


If you are looking to fire up your culture so its fit for the future, get in touch at hello@unitedcultureco.com or Victoria.Lewis-Stephens@unitedcultureco.com.