Culture Bites - 006 What is a Toxic Culture

Published on 31 May 2018

Toxic Culture website

We talk about what ‘Toxic Culture’ really means, how it forms, and what can be done about it. This episode is hosted by Shaun McCarthy, Liana Sangster, and Dominic Gourley.

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Microphone Key Takeaways and Ideas

What is a Toxic Culture?

In essence: a ‘Toxic Culture’ is one where people behave in the exact opposite way you would expect them to behave – given their stated values.

Toxic Cultures are places where people are primarily concerned with protecting themselves, staying away from threats, and keeping themselves safe – rather putting their effort towards achieving great results for the overall organisation and doing what’s best for the customer. There is a lot of anxiety and stress in Toxic Cultures and that ultimately pulls away productivity.

Toxic Cultures can come in two varieties (or a mixture of both): Highly Passive and highly Aggressive. The highly aggressive one we are more familiar with from stories in the media about bullying and harassment, but equally a passive culture - where your first thought is about staying out of trouble - can be pleasant on the surface but just as toxic and debilitating underneath. Often the two types go together because for one person to be aggressive someone else needs to be passive.


How Does a Toxic Culture Form?

Culture is about “How people believe they are expected to behave” – how do I believe I’m supposed to behave in order to fit in and get ahead (or in the case of a Toxic Culture: survive) in this organisation? These expectations are built over time through what the organisation reinforces and punishes. Often these kinds of messages are sent unknowingly and inadvertently.

For example: if someone is very aggressive and they are promoted (or seen throughout the system as successful) then people are going to take the message that they are supposed to behave in an aggressive manner.

Another Example: If there is a lack of involvement in decision making and a reliance on processes and procedures – people will feel they are expected to check their brain at the door and just do what they are told.

Organisations don’t exist in a vacuum. The wider system of stakeholders can reinforce certain messages about how people are expected to behave. In local government the mantra is ‘don’t be on the front page of the newspaper’ so trying new things is discouraged. In the private sector, shareholders’ fixation on share price creates the expectation for people to find new ways of generating revenue and some of these ways may not be aligned with the company’s stated values.

What can you do about it?

For Leaders: Look at how can you shape the structures and systems in the organisation that give more influence and more involvement. Create autonomy in people’s jobs so at the end of the day they can walk away and say ‘I accomplished something today’.

For employees: adapt to the culture where you need to, role model constructive behaviours where you can, have conversations with you manager about how things might be able to be done differently. Ultimately, if all of that doesn’t get you anywhere, leave.

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Previous Episodes:
001: Kick Starting a Passive Team
002: Dealing with Delegation
003: Telling Someone They have a Blind Spot
004: Whats Wrong with Being Competitive?
005: I have a Competitive Teammate – Help!

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