How a Leader Can Fix a Toxic Culture

4 Minutes Read

To fix your company’s toxic culture, you must first identify what’s wrong. Some business leaders ignore signs of trouble because their attention is fixed elsewhere. Others willfully disregard the problem, hoping it will “fix itself.” But no company can thrive for long if it’s riddled with issues related to how employees are treated and a consistently low workplace morale.

How to Tell If You Have a Toxic Culture

Among the warning signs that a company’s culture is troubled:

  • Higher-than-usual employee turnover
  • A lack of teamwork and no sense that “we’re all in this together”
  • Little or no innovation or creativity coming from within
  • Too many layers of bureaucracy
  • Distance between the company’s leader and his or her team

Sometimes the problem emanates from the CEO/business owner’s leadership style. If he or she sets a poor example—by not sharing important updates or displaying favoritism towards some employees and disfavor towards others—this attitude “leeches” into the work environment with inevitably negative consequences. At other times, the pace of business simply distracts those in charge from paying attention to what’s happening internally.

In either case, the resulting toxic work atmosphere only makes things worse.

How to Fix a Toxic Culture

So how can leaders turn things around? Here are tips and actions to consider:

Be a leader people want to follow.

A CEO’s actions always speak louder than words. If you work seemingly around the clock, your team may feel obliged to do the same—which wreaks havoc with their attempts to balance work and life. Also, by neglecting to regularly interact with employees, you foster a distance between yourself and the organization that tends to depress morale and productivity.

Pay attention to what employees are saying.

Yes, as CEO, you are an expert in your business—what it makes it work, its challenges and opportunities. But front-line employees who deal with customers every day most likely have ideas and insights that haven’t occurred to you and which could prove invaluable to future growth.

It’s helpful as well to solicit employees’ input about the health of your company culture and processes. Whether it’s done anonymously or otherwise, surveying the team and asking the hard questions achieves at least two critically important goals:

  • It enables you to “feel the pulse” of the environment.
  • It boosts employee morale, by making people feel that someone at the top is listening.

Speak clearly and honestly.

People instinctively know when they’re being fed the “company line,” as opposed to being told what’s really going on. In a toxic environment, no one feels a connection to the vision and mission of the business, and often resent attempts by leadership to sugarcoat things.

When business is good, share the news and acknowledge the contributions your team makes. When a crisis occurs, be honest about the challenge and invite the team to offer possible solutions. However benign your intentions might be, don’t leave them out of the equation.

Ensure that employees work with realistic deadlines.

In a toxic environment, employees struggle with burdensome workloads and unreasonable deadlines. People always feel they simply can’t get everything done in the time allotted, so the work they do is frequently haphazard and incomplete—perpetuating a cycle of blame and resentment that’s no good for anyone.

Instead, give employees both the time and resources to get their jobs done. Make sure managers are providing the type of guidance that helps get results, rather than endlessly criticizing employees’ efforts. By and large, employees want to do the best job they can, but that’s near-impossible in a crushing, deadline-intensive environment.

Promote a culture of collaboration.

Employees working strictly on their own, with no input or cooperation with others, can’t deliver the results you’re looking for. It’s up to you to promote a culture where teamwork is a priority and collaboration is encouraged and rewarded.

“The key to eliminating destructive behaviors like gossiping, scapegoating, and bullying is to foster an environment in which such actions are actively discouraged,” notes Eureka. It’s far better to “reward your team for cooperating with one another instead of pushing each other around.”

Acknowledge both individual and team efforts.

Leaders who feel there’s not enough time in the day for praise or rewards are ignoring a critical factor in employee engagement. Nothing serves to better motivate people than being acknowledged for the work they do.

Be sure executive team members are all on the same page.

Getting inconsistent messages from senior leadership is another source of constant frustration for employees—and which contributes to a toxic environment of backbiting and jockeying for favor.

Make sure your executive team feels “intimately connected to [the company’s] mission statement, and to each other,” notes Fast Company. To ensure consistency, “the man or woman at the top of the ladder should set the tone for his or her subordinates so they can do the same with the employees they manage.”

Taking these actions will properly motivate your team and eliminate the kind of negative behavior that fosters a toxic work environment:

  • Make employees feel important (because they are).
  • Strive for an atmosphere of mutual trust.
  • Give employees the tools and resources needed to get the job done.
  • Provide training to augment their current skills and make them better at what they do.

Most of all, be available. People want to feel connected to their leader and, perhaps surprisingly, this requires a fairly small amount of time on your part to make it happen. Promote an open-door policy where employees can talk to you about the challenges they face and, hopefully, come to you with great new revenue-generating opportunities. And, without going overboard, get to know these individuals so you can comfortably ask about their families, weekend plans, and so on.

Your leadership style may be the critical element in determining whether your company culture is upbeat and supportive, or one where morale and productivity are depressingly low.

If you’ve experienced situations where a different leadership style might make a genuine impact for the better, take a look at what Catapult Groups has to offer—in monthly meetings of small business advisory groups, in one-on-one business coaching and in our expert business growth workshops.

Brad Mishlove