Fix Your Subtly Toxic Culture to Improve Organizational Effectiveness

The signs of an organization with a toxic culture are usually easy to spot. We’ve all experienced environments where morale is low; internal communication is poor; managers and employees rarely interact; and people belittle each other behind closed doors. The never-ending drama may be accompanied by loud, personal arguments. The result is an overall atmosphere of fear and unhappiness that hampers productivity and employee satisfaction. When these kinds of overt factors are at play, most employees recognize the challenges – even if they aren’t willing to openly discuss these issues.

As we work with enterprises of all shapes and sizes around the world, we also encounter other types of organizational cultures where the dysfunction is not so obvious. On the surface, these subtly toxic cultures often appear collaborative and friendly. However, dig a little deeper, and you may find several cultural issues that make these organizations extremely slow at making decisions. These delays hamper an organization’s ability to execute on its strategy and to fully align activities with goals.

Four Signs of Subtly Toxic Cultures

Here are four situations which may seem relatively harmless on the surface, yet may indicate a toxic culture operating in stealth mode. 

  • Lack of Truth/Transparency. Anyone who is responsible for keeping a project on track prefers to report continuous progress. However, in some organizations, people are reluctant to acknowledge problems that need to be addressed. Instead, they minimize the risks and challenges. For example, they may say the work is largely on track, but they need clarification on a few questions. The culture’s lack of transparency discourages employees from sharing unpleasant truths that may be necessary to achieve positive outcomes.
  • The Walking Dead. Some organizations are reluctant to confront employees who are not performing as expected. After an employee’s work goes astray, managers may begin leaving that person out of meetings, or shift their duties to others without explanation. No one confronts this employee about the problem or performance miss, but he or she senses something is wrong. These workers become similar to the zombies on The Walking Dead, shuffling around aimlessly and disoriented, failing to make a meaningful contribution.
  • Decision by Committee. Building consensus around important decisions is normally the best approach in most organizations. However, some team members can get bogged down in the process. They continually seek additional input from their peers or executives, or allow committee-related work to drag on in an attempt to achieve unanimity. While building consensus helps ensure everyone is on board, it can also become a stalling tactic that significantly slows the decision-making process.
  • Analysis Paralysis. Often people or groups make decisions too complicated by overthinking a situation. They gather more and more data in hopes of guaranteeing a perfect outcome. Forward motion stalls while they dig “just a little deeper” for more information. Analysis paralysis leads them to avoid making any decision.

Again, some of these tendencies are not necessarily bad. There is often nothing wrong with gathering enough information; seeking consensus; being optimistic about your project; or being nice to other employees. Problems arise when these techniques prevent leaders and employees from talking openly about the real issues and obstacles. They evolve into delaying tactics that slow down the organization’s progress. 

Overcoming Cultural Roadblocks

There are two major tactics that can effectively address subtly toxic cultures. One is creating the right conditions to bring the truth out in the open.  There are many ways to pursue this goal. You might have one-on-one conversations with the key players involved to understand what’s really going on, and then bring them together to find a solution. You can also take the emotions and personalities out of the situation by using facts and figures to quantify the problem. Pull data that illustrates the challenge, share that information, and then ask your team: “How do we deal with these facts?” It is more difficult to avoid the truth once the data comes out in the open. 

The second tactic comes down to redefining what “nice” means in the work environment. We may think we are being nice to an employee by dropping them from a meeting rather than confronting their unsatisfactory performance.  But are you really being nice to them? A better approach for both parties is for the leader to coach the employee through where they fell short of their responsibilities and how they can improve going forward. Redefining “nice” to mean honesty vs. avoidance helps improve employee morale and performance, better enabling the organization to meet its goals.

Successful leaders actively work to bring out the truth, encouraging employees to say what they really think. One colleague of mine approaches this informally by inviting others to take a walk around the corporate campus. He asks questions about how things are going and asks how they believe situations could be improved. He gathers more direct insights from these casual one-on-one conversations than he hears in team meetings.

The president of another company had asked his team to make some significant cost reductions. The group members gave a variety of arguments against the cuts and delayed decisions. He finally told the group that, if the teams realized later that the cuts were too deep or in the wrong places, he was committed to reversing course. Allowing the group to take risks and promising they could correct mistakes helped them to move forward with making the needed cuts.

As a leader, be on the lookout for subtle ways your culture is experiencing toxic side effects and be ready to counter-act those by putting truth on the table and redefining what “nice” looks like.

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