Five less-known signs of a toxic culture

Recovering from a toxic culture is possible. It starts with early awareness.


A toxic culture at work is costly. It hits productivity, product quality, service delivery, recruitment costs and profits. And it hits them far harder than most managers think.


In a toxic culture, you may be losing one in five of your employees every year, according to researchers. I’ve seen worse – one in three employees leaving is not unusual. It’s your strongest – the experts and the experienced – who walk out of the door first. The weakest, least productive tend to leave last.



Awareness is all for global managers


Nine out of ten senior managers don’t even know what’s going on until it’s too late.


Working in a global company makes it harder. Different time zones and locations make identifying toxic behaviour much more difficult for senior global managers. Working with the principle of “out of sight, out of mind”, it’s easy for local managers to make excuses and hide their toxic behaviours.


The range of potential for local managers is huge. On top of the usual excuses for bad behaviour, unscrupulous managers can trick you with cultural excuses. “We do things differently here.” Unless you have extensive experience of that culture, it is difficult to argue against that.


There is another way: awareness. The signs of a toxic culture are everywhere. You just have to listen and look for them. Here are five of the less-known ways to pick up on the signals before it’s too late.


Signal #1: Talk to everyone locally.

It’s surprising what they tell you, in confidence, when they trust you. Going for lunch, coffee, or a walk with employees is an eye-opener. One manager recalled how he happened to be in the kitchenette as employees came in to get their mid-morning coffee. He said he learnt more about the local operations in that 20 minutes than in a full morning of official meetings.


Signal #2: Observe the reactions to crazy plans and impossible goals.

Head Office sets an impossible sales target. The local market is shrinking. The country manager has no chance of hitting the target. Who speaks up? When? If there’s silence, there’s a problem. Trust is low and toxicity is rising.


Signal #3: In a meeting, look at who talks to who.

Who gets the attention? Who gets ignored? In a normal discussion, attention is evenly spread. In a toxic culture, the attention flows to particular people – the players!


Signal #4: Humour as a defence mechanism.

Humour is universal. We all instinctively know when jokes are crude or in bad taste. Humour is also a defence mechanism. If employees can’t criticise directly because of the toxic culture, then they’ll hide the criticism behind the cloak of humour. Look for excessive sarcasm and rude comments. They are a strong sign of a toxic culture.


Signal #5: Lack of social activity.

Do people come in, do their job and go home? If everyone does it, there might be a toxic culture. It’s certainly worth investigating further, because zero social activity – not going for lunch together, no small talk, no shared interests – is unusual.



When visiting another global site, you’ll never see a flashing neon sign with “Toxic Culture Here”. But the signs are there when you open up your awareness. The secret is the same as ever: to have trustful dialogs with people.







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