20 Signs You’re Working in a Toxic Culture

POINT OF THE POST...

Feeling uneasy about your workplace environment? Discover the 20 telltale signs of a toxic work culture and understand why it matters for your well-being. Are you experiencing any of these?

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“Nothing kills growth faster than a toxic church culture.”

My friend Carey Niewhof tweeted this (or “X’ed” it) last week. 

He is 100 percent correct. 

I’ve said similar things and written about culture several times. Still, it’s worth repeating, as culture may be THE determining factor for organizational success. 

The Power of Culture Was Just on Display with the Colorado Buffalo Football Team

It’s the first Saturday of college football, and I’m watching Deion Sanders’ (Coach Prime) Colorado Buffalos take on TCU. TCU is ranked #17. Colorado is unranked. 

TCU is picked to win the game by 21 points. The game is at halftime, and Colorado is winning. We have yet to determine who will win the game, but Coach Prime’s presence is clearly visible. 

If you’re not a football fan, no worries. Here’s what you need to know: Coaches are leaders (or should be), and teams are like organizations. The similarities are nearly identical. 

Deion Sanders spent the past three seasons as the head coach at Jackson State. In the off-season, Sanders accepted the head coaching job at the University of Colorado. The Buffalos have experienced success, but it’s been a long time since their football program felt relevant. Enter Sanders. 

Immediately, Coach Prime, as he is called, met the team and began working on one thing: CULTURE. 

You can watch his first player meeting here: 

What you see is Coach Prime’s focus on culture.

Coach Prime knows a lot about football. He’s one of the greatest players in NFL history. He’s one of the most electric players ever to put on pads. Yet, he understands that skill, ability, speed, strength, and everything else a player needs is irrelevant in a toxic or unhealthy team culture.

20 Signs of a Toxic Culture

Toxicity in the organizational bloodstream is deadly. How do you know if your culture is toxic? Here are 20 symptoms:

1. High Turnover: When employees leave at a high rate, especially the high-performers, it’s a clear sign that the work environment is not conducive to retaining talent.

2. Lack of Trust: If employees feel they cannot trust their peers or superiors, you’ve got a toxic culture. There may be fears of backstabbing or throwing others under the bus to get ahead.

3. Poor Communication: Information hoarding or unclear communication leads to misunderstandings and inefficiencies. And to an unhealthy culture.

4. Excessive Gossip: When a lot of time is spent discussing others, it indicates a lack of focus on productivity, fosters distrust, and injects toxins into the organization. 

5. Lack of Work-Life Balance: If employees are consistently expected to work late, on weekends, or during vacations, the culture will become toxic.

6. Fear-Driven Environment: If mistakes are punished severely, employees will become afraid to take risks, innovate, or even admit to errors. Not only does this stagnate the organization, it creates a toxic culture.

7. Unrealistic Expectations: If leaders or managers consistently push for more without recognizing the efforts and achievements of their teams, the culture is toxic. Never measuring up is a sickness that leads to personal or organizational apathy.

8. Poor Leadership Behavior: We could write an entire post about this one! The culture is doomed when leaders display favoritism, fail to acknowledge accomplishments, or are not open to feedback.

9. Lack of Development Opportunities: If there are limited chances for professional growth, training, or advancement, your top talent will leave to find a better work culture.

10. Discrimination and Bias: If some groups are consistently left out, overlooked for promotions, or treated differently based on race, gender, age, etc., the end is near.

11. High Levels of Burnout: If employees frequently report feeling exhausted, cynical, or become ineffective in their roles, it could be a cultural issue more than an employee problem.

12. No Clear Mission or Values: When the organization lacks a clear purpose or the stated values are not aligned with actual practices, a toxic culture is the result. NOTE: Don’t fool yourself into believing the mission and vision are clear. Just because they are written on the wall doesn’t mean they are happening down the hall.

13. Lack of Recognition or Reward: The culture will become toxic if employees feel their hard work goes unnoticed or isn’t adequately rewarded.

14. Exclusionary Cliques: When certain groups form within the company and exclude others, a divide among employees injects a toxin into the organization.

15. Micromanagement: If leaders or managers are overly involved in the work of their subordinates, not trusting them to complete tasks on their own, an unhealthy culture is sure to form.

16. Retaliation: Healthy cultures offer psychological safety. If employees fear speaking up because they believe they might face negative consequences, the culture will become toxic.

17. High Levels of Stress: Some stress is inevitable in an organization. Prolonged high pressure, however, can indicate that the job demands are too much or that the support structures are insufficient.

18. Employee Disengagement: When a significant portion of the workforce shows signs of disinterest, lack of motivation, or detachment from their work, the culture is the problem.

19. Feedback is Discouraged: If there’s no platform or encouragement for employees to evaluate, share their concerns, or voice ideas, the culture will turn unhealthy.

20. Toxic Physical Environment: The physical workspace can contribute to cultural health. Overcrowded spaces, lack of proper facilities, or an unclean environment communicate an unhealthy culture.

Removing Toxins from an Unhealthy Culture

Whether you’re a point leader or a lower-level employee, everyone can contribute to improving the culture.

On the other hand, if a toxic culture is allowed to fester, the ramifications will grow in significance and eventually land the organization in hospice.

If you want to improve the culture around you, start by assessing the actual culture first. Almost every organization has stated values, but rarely are these values evaluated against the behaviors within the organization.

Aspirational values don’t help the culture. Only actual values can shape the workplace.

So, to begin your analysis, compare your organization’s stated values against the behaviors you consistently experience.

Does the organization do what the values suggest should be done? Are there gaps between what is expected (values) and what is experienced (behaviors)?

If you need help with the analysis, let me know. I frequently help leaders and organizations define their current culture, refine their aspirational values, and integrate new reinforcing behaviors to improve organizational health.

Healing from unhealth is challenging, but it’s worth the effort. Especially when you consider organizational hospice is the only other option.

If you’re ready to dig more deeply into culture, here are a few other posts:

  1. Five Thoughts on Including Culture in Your HR Process
  2. Two Steps To Define and Document Your Culture
  3. Three Simple Steps to Improve Your Organizational Culture

P.S.: The Colorado Buffalos just beat TCU! A team picked to lose by 21 points just upset the #17 team in the country? How?

Culture.

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