What is a toxic work culture? Since I was fifteen years old, I have worked in a variety of environments with a variety of leaders and cultures. I believe there are varying degrees of toxic work cultures and leaders, but I wrote down six signs you might be in a toxic culture. There are more than these signs, but these I have experienced these first-hand.
- Poor Vision and Values.
I have worked in fast-food, sales, nonprofits and churches, and this has happened across the board. When the leader or the organization fails to cast vision, or build strong values, the team suffers. You cannot lead someone somewhere if you don’t know where you are going. There is an old church saying, “If there is a mist in the pulpit, then there’s a fog in the pews.” If the leadership and organization poorly communicate the vision and values then you will fail.
- Bad Communication.
Everyone is good at communicating poorly. Good communication takes intentionality and strong systems. One of the biggest frustrations on all levels in an organization is when they are on different pages. Over communicate! Internal and external communication takes strong systems. When, how, and to whom am I responsible for communicating with? I have worked in toxic work cultures that became worse because of the frustration of bad communication.
- Unrealistic and False Expectations.
I have been on the giving and receiving end of unrealistic and false expectations. Here is an example. I was twenty-two when I became a sales manager at a Christian bookstore. I was tasked with equipping and developing the staff to sell, or at least that is what they said. The job description and what the leadership said that is what they wanted, but in reality, I spent most of my time on tasks and stocking shelves. When I tried to develop and encourage our team to sell, I was asked to get back on task. There is nothing wrong with tasks, but the job description and expectations were not what they really wanted. Maybe they desired for me to sell; but in reality, they wanted me to be a task master. In the end, I was frustrated because I felt like I was failing. There were unrealistic and false expectations on both sides.
- Passive and Insecure Leaders or Co-workers.
Insecurity and passivity lead to a toxic work culture. A passive leader will fail to correct poor habits and behaviors out of fear or laziness. The passive leader either doesn’t care about the situation, or they are afraid of conflict. Experience teaches me that it is usually fear of conflict. The Insecure leader usually makes it about them. They have to be the best. They have to be right. They have to dominate out of fear or pride. Insecurity and passivity will create a toxic work culture and lead to turnover or stalled productivity.
- Poor Systems and Structures.
One of the biggest frustrations I have experienced has been poor organizational systems and structures. How is this toxic? Poor systems and structures lead to a toxic work culture because it leads to confusion, frustration, and turnover. This will affect you as a leader, your team, your customers, and your bottom line (or goals, impact, etc.). This is notorious in the church and nonprofit realm. With small budgets, high demand of time and energy, and depending on volunteers, churches and nonprofits get overwhelmed and struggle to create good systems and structures. As leaders we need systems and structures to help the flow of communication, assignments/tasks, and development. When I worked in sales, I needed a clear and easy system to connect customers to products, and ways to follow up with them. One of the ways I succeeded in sales was by having a good system and structure to make them happy. By doing this, I created a loyal long-term customer. Systems and structures matter.
- No Voice or Value.
As a worker and as a leader, I love when I feel I have a voice that is heard. There is nothing worse than sitting in a meeting and feeling no value. Your team, customers, and co-workers have value and their voice matters. Even if you don’t use their ideas, make them feel heard. As a leader, your people bring value and have great ideas. When we suppress their ideas and voice, you are communicating to them that they do not matter. This will create a toxic work culture of bitterness, frustration, resentment, and they will leave.
There are plenty of other signs and indicators of toxic work cultures, but I have witnessed these six first-hand. We all go through rough seasons in life, and perhaps you are in one of those seasons. The hardest decision to make is when should I leave. I cannot answer that for you, but ask yourself tough questions like, “Do I see myself here in a few years if it doesn’t change?” “Are these issues small enough for me to accept and move past?” No one is perfect, but I have worked in some great work cultures. I love what author Craig Groeschel says in every podcast he does, “When the leader gets better, everyone gets better.”