Toxic workplaces are never just about the collection of toxic individuals exhibiting egregious behavior. They’re about cultures gone askew, unproductive or harmful norms that slowly seep into “how things are done around here” over time, burying energy, camaraderie, and optimism along with them.
What makes a work environment toxic varies, of course, but there are undeniable universal elements underlying most toxic cultures. Leaders that establish a baseline set of behaviors can get their “80 for the 20” (the most impactful result for the least associated effort) in terms of unwinding what created the toxic workplace to begin with.
I interviewed or surveyed more than 3,000 employees and leaders toiling in toxicity for Find the Fire. Combining this with 30 years of experience detoxifying workplaces, I can share the nine most impactful ways you can detoxify your corrosive workplace. Start here to start the turnaround, pronto.
1. Start pushing work down into the organization.
An astonishing number of workplaces suffer from a command and control culture, with leaders dictating what to do and micromanaging how it’s done. Poison. You’ll make fast cultural progress if you start granting large swaths of autonomy and let people do what they were hired to do.
2. Address underperformers, immediately.
Don’t let the cancers linger a day longer. Nothing frustrates high-performers more than watching problem-children clog up the workplace without retribution. Ensure underperformers understand where they’re falling short, give them a short window to fix it, and don’t hesitate to move on from employees as warranted.
Beyond this, institute a spirit of accountability, holding everyone accountable to deliver what they’ve been asked to deliver and to be a positive contributor to the culture along the way.
3. Step up and resource the racehorses.
By this I mean fight to secure proper resources for your biggest priorities. Stop making more with less the default for everything. Employees who feel they aren’t set up to win and don’t have the resources to succeed at what they’ve been asked to deliver eventually become so frustrated they’ll actually do less with what they currently have.
4. Take an instant stand for openness.
This includes openly sharing information (versus hoarding it to maintain power), keeping an open mind, and encouraging others to share their opinion. It also means being transparent, vulnerable, and honest in your communications. If employees don’t feel comfortable speaking up, they’ll feel less comfortable keeping it bottled inside. And they’ll start having meetings after the meeting and spend huge energy commiserating and complaining. They need an environment that fosters the opposite, pronto.
5. Replace callousness with care–authentically.
When people fundamentally feel undervalued and underappreciated, the culture has no chance. So much of toxic behavior can be traced back to people feeling like nobody cares about, or for, them. So much cultural progress can be made so quickly by leaders taking a genuine interest in employees, their personal growth, and their career development. By giving praise and recognition and simply making employees feel valued. This is the most un-rocket-science-like thing on this list, but also the most underexecuted.
6. Clarify promotion criteria.
A big source of toxicity comes from leaders playing favorites and promoting only a certain type of employee. This leads to a pervasive sense of unfairness and “Why bother trying?” sentiment. Or it encourages something worse–acidic behavior in a desperate attempt to get noticed and get ahead. Stop this behavior by re-establishing clear, fair promotion criteria and communicate that criteria to all.
7. Circle the wagons to craft a clear vision and communicate it about 1,000 times.
Toxicity comes from a lack of direction; in its absence, employees are forced to fill in the blanks. This leads to a lack of cohesion, competing priorities, and individual agendas and motivators. Pull key leaders together to create a clear and compelling vision (leveraging organizational input) and then share it more times than you can stomach. Employees need to hear a vision constantly to believe it and follow it.
8. Interject reality and hope.
Work environments dripping with toxicity likely have employees who feel a sense of hopelessness or are operating in a manner detached from the reality of their competitive environment or internal challenges. Fix this fast. Provide a clear state of the union while giving genuine reasons for hope (without blindly overpromising).
9. Establish the rules of risk-taking.
I’ve seen so many leaders talk a big game about the need for employees to take risks, but when the risks don’t pan out, employees get hammered. Avoid this by establishing and broadly communicating what the rules of risk taking are. What constitutes a good risk? A bad one? Who needs to approve risks to be taken? You get the idea.
Act fast to fix your corrosive workplace. It’s eating at your employees.