Have you ever worked for an organization you dreaded going to every day? Have you worked under a leader who crushed your confidence and made you feel unimportant? Have you been bullied, ostracized, or shunned by your team members?
If you’ve answered “yes” you’re not alone. Millions of people wake up each day in dread about their organization, leaders, and team members. Good people blame themselves for feeling this way and convince themselves to “suck it up,” or “be more appreciative,” or “work harder to prove their worth.”
Then they suck it up, become more appreciative, and work harder, which makes them better, but nothing else changes. Why? Because they’re not a toxic individual, they are in a toxic culture. A culture is the beliefs, values, artifacts, and assumptions of a people group. A culture should be established firmly on agreed upon values, authenticity, and trust. But unfortunately, many cultures are built on the faulty philosophies of bad leaders who spread toxins instead of life.
If you’re around toxins long enough you become used to them as they steadily diminish your health. Toxic cultures steadily diminish people’s creativity, authenticity, and the joy of their work, and soon people become a shell of their true selves.
Here are 13 toxins of a bad culture with brief explanations. Raise your awareness, and if you’re a leader, be serious about addressing them.
1. Fear – Toxic cultures have fear of risk, fear of leaders, and the fear of making mistakes. These are just a few, but fear causes people to do crazy things.
2. Haste – In a toxic culture people make hasty decisions which lead to more hasty decisions. And because they make hasty decisions they spend much more time fixing the problems from hasty decisions then they’d of spend from making careful and calculated decisions.
3. Discontent – People complain in toxic cultures. They complain about their pay, their position, other people, the building, and their tools.
4. Thoughtlessness – In toxic cultures, people are not welcome to think for themselves, so they don’t. If their leader doesn’t tell them to do something, they won’t do anything.
5. Quick tempers – Because people don’t think for themselves and are in fear, they will lash out at each other to avoid having more shame heaped on them from their leaders.
6. Hopelessness – In toxic cultures people are trying to survive. They can’t look forward to tomorrow, they’re just trying to make it through the day.
7. Corruption – This is at every level in a toxic culture. People steal, lie, cheat, and do whatever they can to get ahead. But they will put on a show for customers and pretend they are a moral and upstanding organization.
8. Indecisiveness – People don’t commit or they over-commit and burn out in toxic cultures. The indecision leaves a trail of incomplete projects, leading to more indecisiveness on which should be completed first.
9. Threats – In toxic cultures leaders use threats to coerce people to do what they want. This is done both overtly and covertly, but the purpose is to control people through fear.
10. Arrogance – In toxic cultures leaders think people are there to serve them. They see themselves as heroes. They believe they have the best ideas, make the best decisions, and are the best leaders. You can’t give them bad news–they don’t want to hear it.
11. Selfishness – When people live in toxic cultures and it’s survive-at-all-costs, they become selfish. Because they can never properly deal with the hurts they’ve experienced in the culture, they don’t trust their team members and only look out for themselves.
12. Cruelty – In toxic cultures people make rude, hurtful, and demeaning comments. Often it’s masked through this comment, “Oh, we were only joking!” Which is a lie.
13. Pride – Even when leaders are confronted in a toxic culture, their pride won’t allow them to see the problems. Instead they will blame other leaders, the market, or employees for the culture issues. And so, they are never dealt with.
Sumantra Ghoshal says, “You can tell a lot about a culture by the ‘smell’ of the place.” If you’ve been in a culture like this, you’ve ‘smelled’ these toxins before. Don’t blame yourself for feeling like something is not right. Look for these toxins and raise awareness to your leaders. For things to change, sometimes it takes the boldness of someone like you to spark it.
If you’re a leader and you recognize these things, address them. Be authentic and tear down the walls that are keeping your people’s potential locked away. Studies show that environment is the key factor in determining who a person becomes. You have the power to spread toxins or life. I hope you choose the latter.