It’s Not You, It’s Me: Breaking Up With Toxic Company Culture

Your company culture is at the center of whether or not your business runs successfully. It sets the stage for the level of success your employees will have collaborating, accomplishing goals, and pushing your company forward.

However, just because your culture is a critical factor influencing the success of your business doesn’t mean it can rely on importance alone to maintain its health. In fact, workplace culture may be one of the most fragile and easily damaged components of any business. 

With just one bad hire, you can derail a once quiet and synergistic atmosphere, right? Not exactly.

All too often, leadership is quick to point to bad employees as the source of toxic workplace culture. The reality is that company culture comes from the top down, directly set by leadership and the expectations created by those in charge. So it’s actually more common for a company culture to turn toxic from poor leadership than anything else.

Blaming toxic workplace culture on an employee is merely shifting the responsibility from those who have a duty to protect the culture to someone who is there due to a poor hiring decision. Or who is being allowed to contribute negatively to company culture. For an employee to truly damage a culture, they have to have been given the opportunity to do so by leadership. 

So what’s the first thing a leader should do when they face a toxic workplace culture? Take ownership. 

It’s not you, it’s me

As uncomfortable as it sounds, it’s vital for leadership to take full responsibility for the state of their company culture. If they want to make any difference, they’ve got to start with themselves and move forward from there.

If your team is suffering at the hands of a workplace bully, incompetent managers, or poor communication, it means that somewhere down the line, someone got away with doing something they shouldn’t have. And as a result, the bad behavior continued until it became too much to ignore. It means that someone let them get away with it

The key issue here is that what could have been stopped at the beginning was left to grow and fester. For a culture to be protected, there must be an expectation of immediate corrective action if someone acts in detriment to it– without excuses or hesitation.

Here’s an example

Rose owns a small business with a handful of employees. She hires a new employee, and within their first couple weeks, the employee becomes involved in several disagreements with other employees. The owner listens to all sides of the story but doesn’t take any action, hoping it will just go away.

A month goes by, and there is no positive change. Instead, the disagreements have escalated to bullying. The owner of the store tells the employees to work it out themselves and scolds her staff for not getting along better.

Before Rose realizes the significance of the interactions, half her team has quit. 

By not responding to the toxic behavior and attempting to put the responsibility of fixing problems on those who are experiencing the issue, Rose made a statement with her lack of  leadership: she valued one employee over the psychological safety of the rest of her team.

The employees didn’t quit on account of the bully; they ultimately quit because they weren’t being protected or valued by leadership.

The moral of the story? What you tolerate at your workplace might as well be what your business promotes.

Time to make a change

So you may have issues with your company culture, and you’re ready to take accountability, but you’re unsure of the next step. Do you fire everyone? Or give everyone bonuses because you want them to stay?

No. The answer is a little more complicated, but a whole lot cheaper. 

Thankfully, your company culture is as resilient as its leadership. Which means you have the power to guide it back to where you want it to be. Here’s where to start.

Clarify and promote your values. If you haven’t already create a values statement for your company. (If you have a values statement already, then you need to ask yourself why it hasn’t helped you so far.) Identify the core values you want to use as a foundation to guide your employees toward the culture you envision.

This isn’t something you put at the top of your employee handbook and forget about. Make sure it’s top of mind and visible to your team, all the time. When you onboard new employees, use it as a reference for everything you do with them. Your values statement will be the basis for all the ways you seek to improve and protect your culture as your business grows and changes.  

Set clear expectations and boundaries. Using your values statement, design a transparent system for holding employees accountable. Make it clear you will not tolerate behavior that goes against your values. Create a well-defined path for your employees to take when they are experiencing issues with other employees. The idea is to make it as obvious and easy as possible for employees to address problems they are experiencing, without fear of retaliation.  

Don’t think of this in terms of punishment. It’s about protecting something you love, not punishing something you don’t. When you create a culture that values happy employees, they’ll be your first line of defense against misconduct. Over time, protecting your culture becomes a team effort.

Don’t be afraid to make moves.  It can be extremely difficult to untangle workplace conflict, which can make finding a fair solution seem unattainable. But there are ways to identify the sources of conflict. Look for the common denominator in the issues you see. If one person keeps popping up, they are most likely playing a negative part.

If you keep coming up against the same person (or people) who are responsible for damaging workplace behavior, it’s time to let them go. Chances are if someone keeps causing problems, they aren’t happy anyway. And if they aren’t satisfied working for you, then you shouldn’t want them on your team. 

Don’t be shy

It’s your company. Do you really want the legacy you leave behind to be of frustrated, betrayed employees? Obviously not—you’re not the bad guy.

But hiding from facing difficult facts, uncomfortable conversations, and, most of all, change, isn’t going to help you or your company. Be proactive. Be confident. Take accountability. Remember that leading people to a healthier, happier environment is only going to gain you a more engaged, loyal, and dedicated team. And that only means one thing: good business. 


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Photo by lucid_dream