I got asked this question yesterday “How can you tell your company has a toxic culture” and it got me thinking. I’ve worked for Toxic Bosses before and it taught me a lot about how to be a leader and how to avoid facing the same situation again.
But how does the idea of a toxic boss translate into a toxic company?
Are there signs to look out for in your current organization or an organization you are thinking of joining that point to a toxic situation?
People don’t leave companies, they leave people.
However, companies are made up of people and it is people that make the difference between an engaging corporate culture and one that is toxic.
Here are my 5 top signs that your corporate culture is toxic.
1. The culture of the scapegoat
Failure is the most proven method and route to success, however, what if you’re in a company that doesn’t believe that?
Does your company value failure as much as success or does it tend to ignore both and only call out those who have failed? Is that a way to exercise control? To show power?
Does your leadership team constantly bicker about the failure of the HR leader on a past project which means the current projects are bound to the same destination, or do they take pleasure in sending out an email with almost the entire company on copying asking who made a certain mistake or oversight?
Do you see your team silently rubbing their hands when they notice someone on another team making a mistake? Are they relishing in the knowledge that they can help, and the company will be successful, or are they delighting in the fact that they will be able to call out that failure to everyone?
Public shaming is a sure feature of a toxic environment. Avoid the scapegoat culture at all costs.
2. Leadership is about being tough and wielding a stick
How does your Leadership Team talk about leadership? How does your manager talk about leadership? What is your definition of a good leader?
You Don’t Lead By Hitting People Over The Head, That’s Assault, Not Leadership. – Dwight Eisenhower
Leadership is not about hitting people with a stick? Why not? Surely it should be? The answer it is not always as obvious as it appears.
I once had a leader, commenting on a deliverable that was late, tell me “either I get things when I ask for them or I change the people I’m asking.”
Harvard Business Review says “When employees aren’t just engaged, but inspired, that’s when organizations see real breakthroughs.”
Inspiring Leadership is a combination of many things, but if you want an organization to behave in a certain manner, then you as a leader need to behave in that way. If you don’t collaborate, you can’t expect your organization to collaborate.
How does your organization view Leadership?
It shouldn’t be about hitting people over the head.
3. Ignore the successes and call out on the failures
In 2006, Alan Mulally moved to an ailing Ford. He knew he needed to change some of the fundamental behaviors in the company, one of which was accepting failure as a natural way to progress. In an Executive meeting, in front of a large crowd. he applauded Mark Fields (who would later succeed him) for admitting to a failure. That one moment set the stage for changing he tone and setting a new cultural direction.
Could you ever see anyone from your Leadership do something similar? No? Maybe you’re not in the right corporate culture?
Make no mistake focusing on failures and calling them out as something negative creates a culture where things are hidden and pretty quickly that sets leadership up for being out of touch and not aware of what is going on. That’s a lose-lose situation and one bound not to stay around for any meaningful period of time.
Whether it is conscious or not, when you focus on using failure as a way to control people, you are destroying your company.
How does your company view failure? How do they view success? What is your own view?
4. You need to show your commitment to the Company and that means working 24/7 and being constantly on call
Toxic environments come from toxic leaders. Toxic environments can be stupidly designed processes that mean you’re working to 2am every night focusing on stupid rather than smart. They can also be demeaning environments or places where you are ridiculed or embarrassed. Whatever your situation is, the source is always the same.
Leadership and the CEO set the tone for the entire organization. Poor leadership can’t be saved by exceptional middle management.
If face time is something important to your company, and being present early and late more valued than getting the job done, then that is a sign of problems present and to come. Presence never – let me insist on this – never equates to productivity.
Everyone needs a balance. Optimal concentration lasts 45 minutes. Beyond that our thoughts start to wonder and we start to become less productive.
Balance means also having other interests in life beyond work. Inspiration and innovation are not found in the depth of a cubicle and organizations that believe they are and doomed to fail.
5. Decisions are complex and need significant time to make
Are they? Toxic companies often instill numerous layers of decision making or have unclear processes or decision owners. Often in a toxic company, you may find new rules appearing around who and how decisions are made. This is the bread and butter of the toxic company. As nobody really wants to make a decision, for fear of failure, they invent majestic processes to cloak the decision and ensure nobody will ever really either make a decision or pin-point just who made it.
Making a decision is the simplest thing in the world. We all do it, all day, every day, from choosing what clothes we put on to what route we take to work. Decisions are easy but require courage.
Toxic companies are often characterized by individuals who lack courage. They may be quick to wield a stick to show power, but that is often to disguise the lack of courage.
How does your organization make decisions?
So you’re working in a toxic company and you just realized it. Now what?
1. Work on an exit strategy
Knowing when to leave is not easy, so you need to plan for it. The better you start seeing your next destination, the easier you’ll see when it is time to leave.
If you wake up in the morning in a cold sweat about going to work. If you feel physically sick or in a panic when you’re at work, then best to start working on an exit plan.
You might be tempted to rush right to your exit strategy. Don’t! The best exits are the planned ones. Planning takes time – I’m repeating this because it is important!
That means getting your CV or resume up to date, contacting friends, headhunters, recruiters and responding to job announcements. Take your time and focus on getting out.
The new job will come and make sure you take your time in analyzing the new culture to make sure you avoid anything toxic.
Once you find that new job, make sure you go out gracefully:
- Give proper notice and do your job right up until the day you leave.
- Have a handover timeline and process. Make sure you plan how your job will continue to be done and share that with your boss.
- Do not bad mouth anyone. Not even the toxic leadership. Don’t go screaming into that exit interview with all the dysfunctional things you’ve seen and been subjected to.
The above are important as the world is a small place and reputations are built over time and lost overnight. Never intentionally make enemies. Don’t think just because you might have a non-managerial job that you can go full kimono in the exit interview as it won’t hurt you. It will.
Exit interviews hardly ever lead to anything when toxicity is involved. It is not worth it. Just walk away gracefully and take the higher road. It is the better road to take.
2. You’re out. Now what?
You’re out! You’ve removed yourself from a toxic environment. Great going!
You’ve proved yourself capable of leaving something broken and you’ll be the all better for it.
Whatever the path you took and the destination you reached, you’re a winner. You are no longer in the environment that was slowly killing you.
Maybe you fall into another toxic environment? Not great, but it can happen. Never fear as if you’ve done it once, you know the approach and can do it again.
Set the steps in the motion and play out your strategy. I’ll bet you it will be even faster this time to get you over the finish line.
Even better, you may be in your dream job, working with a great team in a functional organization. If you are? Good for you. You did it!
Remember, every-thing starts with the simple decision to do some-thing.