The Signs and Impact of a Toxic Culture and How to Break It
Wednesday, September 6, 2023 - Prophit Co.
From both an employer and an employee’s perspective, there’s not much worse than a toxic work environment. Few employees can wake up motivated and excited to come to work every day knowing that their day is going to be stress-filled and conflict ridden. Business owners, executives, and leaders can get frustrated and fed up when they find out they aren’t performing optimally, or even losing money for reasons that are difficult to point to or quantify.
And, make no mistake, toxic work environments lose companies money and more. A study by MIT Sloan found that employees are 10.4 times more likely to quit their jobs because of a toxic work culture than they were to quit due to compensation (Stoltz). Further research by MIT Sloan found that, alarmingly, 30 million American workers felt that their workplace culture is toxic (Nolan). That’s about one in every nine employees who are extremely likely to resign from their positions.
SHRM reported that this culture-based turnover cost U.S. businesses $223 billion dollars between 2014 and 2019, averaging out to about $44.6 billion per year (SHRM). And that was before the Great Resignation!
Talent retention is one of, if not the most important aspects of staying ahead of the competition. Now more than ever, special attention should be paid to things that can be done to ensure that people stick around, and culture is a big one.
A toxic workplace culture can take many different forms, but there are some common ways that they can be identified. Let’s go through a few of them:
- Chronic stress. If employees are stressed out all the time, it’s more than likely because they are burning out due to being overworked, feel uncertain, or have a lot of difficulties communicating with both their peers and superiors (Stoltz). Perpetually stressed employees indicate that there is something amiss in the culture.
- Low morale. Continually unenthusiastic, pessimistic, and unhappy employees are a clear sign that there is a serious issue that needs to be rooted out (Stoltz).
- Abusive leadership. Leaders can exhibit unhealthy and abusive social characteristics, and when they do, they tend to become norms among those below them. The same is true for when leaders allow these norms to become ingrained into the culture. MIT lecturer Donald Sull stated that unhealthy social norms can take hold on a culture either through leaders directly exhibiting them or being apathetic and ignorant to their presence (Nolan).
So, what can actually be done to root out a toxic workplace culture? How can such a pervasive problem be addressed? Truly, it all comes down to putting your people first. Putting people first starts with demonstrating genuine care for the wellbeing of your employees. After all, they are the ones who make the company possible!
If employees are constantly complaining about toxic behavior from leadership, then it’s perhaps time to implement a leadership development training program into the company. If they are constantly tired, stressed, and low on morale because they are overworked, ensure that the culture you have built doesn’t encourage excessive effort at the expense of mental and physical health. If unhealthy conflict is commonplace, give employees a platform to candidly express their concern and gain a clear understanding of each other’s perspectives.
By actively seeking out the root of a cultural problem and taking steps to remedy it, you are doing exactly what’s needed to push the toxicity out of your culture. With the toxicity out of the picture, you pave the way to create a new culture that fulfills employees every day rather than draining them.
“SHRM Reports Toxic Workplace Cultures Cost Billions” [Article]. SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/about-shrm/press-room/press-releases/pages/shrm-reports-toxic-workplace-cultures-cost-billions.aspx [Accessed August 17, 2023]
Nolan, Beatrice. “30 million US workers think their workplace is toxic. Here are the 3 main factors causing toxic work cultures, according to research.” [Article]. 9 October, 2022. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/toxic-workplaces-culture-work-leadership-social-culture-2022-9 [Accessed August 17, 2023]
Stoltz, Ryan. “Toxic Work Culture: Signs of an Unhealthy Work Environment & How to Fix It” [Article]. 22 June, 2023. Workhuman. https://www.workhuman.com/blog/toxic-work-culture-environment/ [Accessed August 17, 2023]