“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is one of the most overstated maxims in business. This is unfortunate because, as with all clichés, overuse dilutes the original power of the message. As any good career coach will advise you when assessing a career opportunity, culture is a powerful force in general life, but especially in organizations.

A simple definition of culture is values made manifest in behavior. This helps to clarify what is going on in a work environment when a particular culture prevails. It’s not simply a bunch of people behaving out of self-interest, though that is a quality of some cultures, it is a group of people co-expressing their co-agreed values.

Perhaps the individuals are not aware of that agreement. Perhaps it is tacit and unconscious. That is potentially a problem. Too many individuals and companies fail to realize that they have a lot of control over cultural dynamics.

A culture will develop regardless; it is best to have a positive influence in shaping it to be something that reflects the values you really want to see in your organization. The alternative can have significant negative impacts on your wellbeing.

A toxic work culture can, like all things toxic, make you sick. Literally. Over time, working in a group with destructive ways of being can have detrimental effects on your mental, and then physical, health.

But it is not always easy to see when the culture around you is becoming, or has become, toxic. Recently, a report published by Marsh & Mclennan, identified 10 warning signs of a dysfunctional work culture:

  1. No clear organizational vision or set of values
  2. All information to the board runs through the CEO
  3. Fighting amongst leadership
  4. Debate and challenge are not encouraged
  5. Limited transparency into organizational decision-making
  6. Complacency and resistance to discuss culture
  7. Bad news is not shared, and employees do not feel comfortable reporting incidents
  8. Strong focus on individual results or a “get it done at all costs” attitude
  9. High employee turnover rates by business unit, race, age, gender, function, etc.
  10. Limited transparency on factors for promotion or success

The environment that emerges from these conditions is not pleasant. It includes cliques and siloes, and all the “us versus them” type competition that eventually degrades into backstabbing and corridor whispers.

Employees do not have a sense of psychological safety, without which innovation and progress are impossible. Eventually, stagnation and poor business outcomes follow, which fuels even more self-protective behavior as individuals begin to worry for their jobs.

Leaders have the greatest influence in fostering a toxic culture or encouraging the shift towards a healthier one, but every person in the company has the ability to alter their own experience.

Here are five approaches to dealing with such a scenario:

  1. Stay out of it

In a toxic work environment, one often sees the rise of factions and in-out groups. This inevitably leads to conversations filled with character assassinations. It is critical to stay out of these dialogues, even though it can be very difficult – it sometimes feels that if you don’t join in you will be next.

If you’re not sure whether you’re just talking about someone or gossiping, a simple test is to ask yourself, “Would I say this if (person X) were standing next to me right now?”

If you get this right it may lead to some exclusion in the short term, but people will learn soon enough that they can trust you, and that will change the fabric of your work relationships, possibly even your team dynamics.

  1. Become a conflict management ninja

Toxic workplaces are usually filled with drama, often with outright confrontations. Simply ignoring these problems will not make them go away, especially not if you’re dragged into them.

Mature resolution of conflict allows you to maintain your personal power while bringing healthy balance to the group system. It is also a foundational skill for development into a leadership position. There are many different approaches and trainings for conflict management – if your company isn’t willing to send you on these courses, find them yourself online.

  1. Make it all about us

Because toxic cultures feel psychologically and emotionally unsafe, people become territorial and self-protective. That’s why they begin behaving badly. The strongest diffuser of this self-centered orientation is a broader perspective.

Wherever possible, draw focus away from yourself or other individuals and make it about the team. This has to be done over and over before it starts to have an impact, but eventually the message should sink in.

  1. Form a safe alliance

Find others who have the same concerns as you do. Share your experience and help them share theirs. The point of this is support, not to create your own new clique. Watch out for that – it can be tricky. If in doubt refer to the test in point #1.

If there are a couple or more of you it also feels more possible to approach leadership with your reservations. Ultimately, any resolution of these types of tensions will require leadership involvement, but this is challenging to initiate, especially if leaders are part of the problem. Having reinforcements can be very valuable.

  1. Prepare your exit strategy

There is no quick fix to toxic work cultures – change takes time. It is also possible that nothing will shift. Even if you are invested in seeing things through it may be useful to begin looking for alternative employment. This will place you in good stead should the situation in your current company become untenable. At the very least, it will give you a greater sense of personal power when things at work feel particularly unpleasant.


Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash