5 ways to avoid a toxic work culture

4/2/2019

5 ways to avoid a toxic work culture

If there’s one thing you definitely don’t want your business to be known for, it’s a toxic work culture. Apart from being unpleasant, a hostile, negative work environment comes with serious repercussions, damaging everything from staff retention to morale to productivity - not to mention PR.

In 2018, the CEO of Lululemon, Laurent Potdevin, resigned as lurid details of a dark, toxic work culture became public. The story included all the usual ingredients: a ‘boys’ club’ culture, sexism, and a total lack of accountability and respect. Unsurprisingly, employees were miserable, and after years of suffering in silence, they finally spoke out.

Of course, they’re not the only brand with a culture problem. In January 2019, Facebook hit the headlines (again) as staff spoke of a culture where employees felt obliged to forge intense friendships with co-workers and follow management orders without question. And in 2017, Uber employees described the work culture as ‘unrestrained, aggressive and unhealthily competitive’.

While these are extreme examples, they serve as a stark warning of what can happen if you don’t pay close attention to your work culture - because a toxic workplace doesn’t just happen overnight. Like rot, it takes hold slowly and builds over time. So, how can you avoid a toxic work culture? Here are five ways to keep your workplace culture in tip-top shape...

1. Company culture comes from the top

A workplace culture isn’t optional. When you have a group of people occupying the same space every day with specific roles to fulfil, an atmosphere or culture will emerge. This culture can become negative or downright hostile if there is no direction or misdirection from the top.

It’s your job as the leader to define the company’s values, communicate them and, crucially, live by them yourself. If you expect staff to be at their desks by 9am, strolling in at 10.30 will only serve to promote an autocratic ‘them and us’ culture. Good leadership and creating a healthy work culture is all about leading by example.

People don’t thrive when they feel dominated, they thrive when they are listened to and treated with compassion. The recent work culture issues at Facebook are a good example of what happens when employees are ‘told’ or pressurised to behave in certain ways.

Former employees described the atmosphere at the social media platform as ‘cult-like’, saying any dissent or questioning was verboten. Instead, employees were expected to blindly do as they were told by management. A peer review system put pressure on staff to ingratiate themselves with their colleagues in an environment which made people feel they had to ‘pretend to be happy’.

As a leader you need to clarify the culture and work values you want to promote and then show, don’t tell. This approach will engender a culture of teamwork, fairness and equality which in turn will lead to happiness, better retention and improved productivity.

2. Stop rewarding mediocrity

‘Our environment is adapted to make the mediocre extremely comfortable’, so says Vistage speaker and former CEO of Planar Systems, Dr Balaji Krishnamurthy. Instead of leading or making decisions by rote, Krishnamurthy believes one of the key factors in creating a positive, successful work culture is intentional, analytical leadership. This type of leadership helps to create a culture of fairness and authenticity.

As he said at a recent Vistage event: ‘Scrap automatic pay rises - you can ask for a pay rise whenever you like. But bring your letter of resignation too…we’ll decide which to choose. Who will like this system? High performers. Who won’t like it? The lazy ones’.

While Balaji isn’t being literal, as a thought exercise, his point is clear: create a culture of meritocracy and genuine reward or risk creating a culture riddled with unfairness and mediocrity.

Unfairness is a factor which comes up again and again in the post-mortems on toxic work cultures. If you know you work harder than your co-worker or have achieved more, watching them get exactly the same pay rise or promotion as you will naturally create strong feelings of resentment, demotivation and disenfranchisement.

If you consistently put the effort in and meet your goals while your colleague is always ready to leave at 4.59, why should they get the same rewards as you? At best this can lead to friction, at worst it can lead to employees feeling there’s no point in working for you. In either case, the workplace culture is negatively affected.  

People want to feel valued for their skills and effort, so as a leader it’s your job to ensure you’re rewarding the right people at the right time. The nature of true recognition is that it has to be selective; if you reward everyone, in reality you’re rewarding no-one. By adopting intentional leadership, you can engender a culture based on honesty and meritocracy.

3. Rethink your recruitment function

If you have an existing culture problem, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom - things can be changed. However, ensuring you employ the right people for the right reasons reduces the chances of a negative culture taking hold in the first place.

In 2003 Vistage member, Claire Edmunds, founded her business development consultancy, Clarify. She believes finding and retaining the best talent is vital to the company’s overall success and work culture, which is why she says being short-termist about recruitment is the wrong approach.

‘When you’re running a business and you employ people, you’re making a commitment to deliver for them. Creating opportunity and careers and building people’s confidence in the workplace is a serious responsibility.’

This reciprocal attitude to recruitment helps to build a culture founded on empathy and loyalty. It isn’t just about what an employee can do for you, but also how you can help to further their growth and prospects.

To avoid recruiting the wrong people, consider psychometric testing and profiling

To avoid recruiting the wrong people, Claire’s company uses psychometric testing and profiling. By building a profile of the person best suited for the role, they can then screen candidates against that profile to find the right fit for both the position and the company culture.

‘We know our clients value integrity and communication. These values are therefore most important to our business, and we hire people who also value those qualities and are motivated by them.’

Taking this methodical approach to recruitment makes it more likely that you’ll employ individuals who share your company values and can effortlessly fit into your work culture.

4. Communication is everything

Whether you employ radical candour or simply communicate your expectations, encouraging openness and honesty should be a pillar of a healthy work environment. If employees feel they cannot speak to you about problems they’re experiencing or work dissatisfaction, it leads to festering, which in turn affects productivity and happiness.

As the leader, you may not even be aware of some of the problems that are contributing to a toxic work culture, which is why it’s vital to promote a culture of transparency. Again, instilling a culture of open communication has to come from the top. If you communicate and engage with your employees frequently and honestly, you set a precedent for them to follow.

Making simple changes like walking around the office and chatting to your team regularly will help to promote a positive culture of sharing and engaging. And don’t do it as a ‘tick-box’ - people can sense that a mile off. If you’re going to connect with your staff, it needs to be genuine; find out about their lives, their interests, what motivates them.

Instead of using platitudes or ambiguous language, think about what you want to say and say it clearly and directly. Again, this will signify to your employees that they too can speak candidly.

However, it’s not just how you speak but also how you listen that can have a big impact on your work culture.

US Vistage Chair, Judith E. Glaser, says that knowing yourself and your ‘blind spots’ is key to effective communication. She believes that many leaders ‘fail to listen to others and listen only to validate what we already know’. If you don’t listen, you create barriers which can lead to feelings of hostility or frustration. Conversely, when people feel they’re being heard, they feel valued and appreciated.

5. Think employee-first

In our 2017 SME Confidence Index, 47% of Vistage members cited talent management as their biggest business concern - why? Because your talent is your business; your employees don’t just affect the workplace culture, they are the workplace culture. If they are unhappy or disengaged it creates a negative atmosphere and ultimately affects your bottom line.

While many businesses adopt a customer-first approach, they should actually be thinking about their employees first and foremost. Vistage speaker, Professor Mark Fritz, believes your leadership style can have a big impact on how valued and invested your employees feel.

In a recent Vistage talk on talent retention, he asked this question: ‘Which would your people take more ownership of: milestones that you give them or milestones that they give you?’ Fritz believes that allowing employees to be accountable and take ownership of outcomes can help to boost motivation and engagement, all of which lead to better productivity and a positive work culture.

If you trust your employees know what they’re doing, you can, as Fritz says, ‘let go’. Instead of micro-managing or imposing rigid work hours, why not let your team work flexibly?

Thinking about the health and wellbeing of your staff is vital if you want to create a dynamic, happy work culture. Flexible working, on-site perks such as a chill-out space or gym, and fair annual leave all contribute to a culture of care and compassion. Most importantly, adopting an ‘employee-first’ attitude creates the kind of workplace that people actively want to be a part of and contribute to; when you show people understanding and empathy, they reciprocate.


We’ve highlighted five ways to avoid a toxic work culture, but there is one constant…You. As a leader, it’s your role to create a vision for the company culture, to live it, to pick the right employees, to communicate openly with them, and to empower them to take ownership. If your work culture is rosy, keep doing what you’re doing - if it isn’t, you, as the leader, have the power to change it.

To find out how Vistage can help you improve your workplace culture by becoming the best leader you can be, contact us.

Topics: Employee Motivation