Understanding Toxic Culture

Imagine you’re on a dating site. You examine a profile detailing someone’s likes, hobbies and interests. You peer at their pictures, get an idea of their looks; their height, colouring and build. You determine whereabouts they live, whether they have many friends, what they like to do in their spare time. You might start to feel like you know them, sort of. So, you arrange to meet them. When you do, you can’t help but feel…disappointed.

They’re not what you thought they were. Which is perplexing; after gathering all the facts you could find and meshing them together, you thought you had at least a rough idea of what they were like. But in practice, it’s meaningless. What this person elected to show about themselves proves to be just a cluster of details. It doesn’t give you any real insight into their personality.

This is the same sort of unpleasant realisation that can occur when you join a business without having any genuine understanding of their culture. You can peruse on the company website, collect details on sector, size, location, benefits. Nice, quantifiable specifics. But culture is less tangible. Culture is the character of a business. It’s the line that marks the difference between starting your day with anticipation or dread.

While the idea itself can be confusing to pin down, the principle of workplace culture is straightforward: if you have a great culture, you have a great business. If you have a toxic culture, you do not have a great business. (Companies that lack culture, by the way, are no better. Choosing between a toxic culture and no culture is the business equivalent of choosing between a date with a psychopath and someone who’s had a lobotomy.)

Spotting Toxic Culture

So, how can you tell if there’s something off about the culture at your workplace? If you love your job but often dread going to work, or find that you always seem to come home in a terrible mood, that should be a bit of a giveaway. But a toxic culture can manifest itself in a number of ways, some of which are harder to spot than others.

For instance, if it seems that most of your colleagues are just there for the perks, that could be a symptom of a flawed company culture. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing if your boss offers a particularly generous holiday package or kits out the office with a pool table. But if incentives are the only means of attracting and retaining staff, it’s worth having a think about how satisfied everyone would be at work if those incentives weren’t in place. Think of it this way: if your job is a cake, then bonuses are what decorates the cake. In an ideal world, we’d all like a decent, generously iced cake. But no icing at all is better than a pile of fondant hiding a rotten sponge underneath.

Another quick way to detect a toxic culture is to think about the general atmosphere. Is your workplace always completely silent? Some offices are more focused than others, but if you could hear a pin drop any time of the day, something’s not quite right. Granted, constant chatter won’t yield the most productive results – but there’s a middle ground here. Cultivating a warm, friendly vibe is impossible if no one’s willing to even exchange the odd pleasantry.

Of course, it’s also worth considering the attitude towards rules. Beware of businesses which treat following procedure as the be-all and end-all of everything. A culture governed by control and distrust is rarely far behind. If your boss seems to relish implementing restrictions which serve little purpose other than to inconvenience everyone, bad news: you’re working in a cultural cesspit. Aside from making daily life stressful and unpleasant, this type of approach tends to produce counter-intuitive results. People quickly get fed up with the constant limitations and lack of flexibility, which makes flouting the rules a much more tempting prospect than toeing the line.

Finally, take a look at management. A good leader should be attentive, supportive, and clear about their expectations. Mixed messages – from fluctuating demands to poorly worded emails – are often indicative of poor management. So are managers who feel the need to establish their superiority on a regular basis. If they’re happy to take credit for your work, yet ill-equipped to provide advice, don’t blame yourself. Just get cracking on that resignation letter.

All done here? Head back to our homepage.