How to fix your toxic culture

Office culture doesn’t turn toxic because of a few bad seeds. It turns toxic because leadership didn’t see or outright ignored the signs that something was amiss.

[Photo: Syed Abdul Khaliq]

Over the past year, we’ve heard a lot about toxic workplaces and their repercussions. But many of the stories often miss a critical issue. Office culture doesn’t turn toxic because of a few bad seeds. It turns toxic because leadership didn’t see or outright ignored the signs that something was amiss.

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“Leadership sets the tone of the workplace culture and acceptable behavior patterns,” says Shahnaz Broucek, a professor of coaching and mentoring for MBA students at the University of Michigan. “Conflict avoidance, chronic stress, and office politics can lead distracted leaders to unconsciously allow negative behaviors like bullying to poison the well.”

In a recent study by Warble, a platform that offers anonymous employee feedback directly to HR departments, one-third of respondents remain silent because the offender is their manager; or they outright fear retaliation or losing their job. One in five have trouble describing insidious behavior. Even more alarming, close to half of respondents don’t believe any action will be taken.

The onus, ultimately, is on leadership to identify and fix the source of a team’s disintegration. But what if leadership is the problem? This means they have to get right with themselves before they can get right with the team.

The following tactics will help any leader at the center of a toxic workplace right the ship.

Accept responsibility

Resolution begins with leadership discovering how their own actions or inaction fanned the toxic fumes. Taking time out to think strategically versus responding reactively under stress is key. Leaders need to recognize their own fears, insecurities, and road blocks before they can identify the same among their team.

“Self-awareness and personal accountability are hallmarks of effective leadership,” Broucek adds. “They are a signal to the team that leadership respects them enough to own and then fix the problem.”

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Map out pain points

Once a leader gets real on the inside, they can get real with their team. David Rock’s SCARF model (SCARF stands for the five key “domains” that influence our behavior in social situations. Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness) is a useful framework to guide individual conversations and team observations to find out what’s actually going on. The model captures five broad social domains that cause tension in the workplace, and is a useful lens to identify triggers that may cause team members to feel threatened, ultimately leading to team dysfunction. Here are some signs to look for:

Status. Watch for people with tendencies to wield power and authority over others, or who treat others disrespectfully and undermine others publicly.

Certainty. Look for those who use information as power. Hoarding critical information undermines team effectiveness and an individual’s credibility.

Autonomy. Identify individuals who are reluctant to delegate and micromanage projects, which can lead to no personal agency or choice among the team.

Relatedness. Look for cliques and ostracizing behaviors, which can lead to team members feeling like they don’t belong, or that they are replaceable.

Fairness. Notice if decisions are made by leaders opaquely or subjectively, without little input from team members and no transparency into the process or rationale.

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“Social dangers cause the same physiological stress response as physical danger,” offers Robin Ross, an executive coach with OptimizeU Leadership Coaching. “The impact of working in a chronically stressful environment not only leads to poor performing teams, but can negatively impact the health of employees.”

Ross suggests looking for both verbal and nonverbal behaviors to identify bullying in the workplace. Does one person tend to dominate the conversation and tone of the room? Do people talk over others or ignore their comments? Do some people display dominant body language, while others sit hunched in their chairs? Are facial expressions tense and defensive?

All of these signs can generally be whittled down to one key factor: Fear. And fear corrodes mental health and productivity.

Restore psychological safety

Listening with compassion is an important first step to correcting a toxic workplace by reducing fear and restoring psychological safety. This can be accomplished by eliminating the threats outlined within SCARF. Ross suggests a few simple tactics:

• Increase relatedness and build trust by creating opportunities for team members learn about one another.
• Establish group norms on how to deal productively with conflict and disagreement.
• Circulate agendas prior to meetings that focus on solutions and outcomes.
• Establish and communicate clear short-term goals for individuals that are aligned with team and organizational goals.
• Provide solutions-based feedback to team members regularly.
• Engage them in decision making to ensure everyone’s opinions are heard.
• Share information broadly, and provide context on decisions and timelines around organizational change.
• Provide public recognition to employees for a job well done and celebrate team successes.

Once psychological safety is restored, employee productivity and engagement are guaranteed to increase.

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Share the turn-around plan

Finally, take what is learned to map out a course correction plan. Share it with the team and detail each person’s strengths and their role in improving the dynamics.

Make it clear they are valued and their talents complement those of their team members. Illustrate how there is a place for everyone on the team, and schedule frequent check-ins to gauge progress and calibrate efforts.

“When a team gets caught up in a mess of social triggers, valuable time, money, and resources are lost,” adds Broucek. “But when employees are invited into the problem-solving process, they create a shared language and feel ownership of the outcome, all of which ultimately lead to increased morale and productivity.”

Compassionate leaders earn respect by taking responsibility for systemic failures and doing the brave work to rebuild community. Their team–and their bottom line–will thank them.


Meghan E. Butler, a partner at Frame+Function, is on a mission to create a more emotionally intelligent workforce. She is a communications professional and career mentor with close to 20 years of management consulting, corporate PR, and agency experience.