How to Evolve Beyond Your Organization’s Toxic Culture


Organizational cultures without trust or mutual respect will always suffer. Productivity, performance and holding on to talent deteriorate when decision-making is poor and accountability absent. Those who stay are there to just put in their time, caring little if they deliver sub-par results.

Yet, there is a way to turn around a stagnant or even combatant culture. Through an intentional approach, organizations can boost employee engagement and create a positive environment of success.

How Do You Know If You Have A Toxic Culture?

Toxic cultures are created as a result of low emotionally intelligent employees who feel little to no connection with their teammates, what the team or organization is trying to achieve or how they’re going about it. It presents itself in many forms: Poor behavior towards colleagues or customers, silent objection, missed targets and deadlines, gossip, anger, harassment, discrimination and fear.

Often, senior managers communicate no clear strategy and it tolerates recalcitrant but brilliant jerks. These cultures are psychologically unsafe for everyone that works in them. They risk of becoming irrelevant. In the private sector, a toxic culture leads to a loss of market share and shareholder confidence, while in the public sector, directors are moved on or departments are merged or “retired” in complicated and seemingly never-ending restructures.

According to Gallup, cultures that tolerate toxic employees cost U.S. businesses alone over $500 billion in lost productivity every year. Meanwhile, research conducted by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwest University found that only one in 20 employees were fired for exhibiting behavior considered to be toxic. By ignoring people who behave in a way that’s contrary from what the organization needs to be successful, management is complicit in the reduction of morale, engagement and productivity.

As Thich Nhat Hanh said in his book The Art of Living, “Just as an acidic cloud produces acid rain, so will the energy of anger, fear, blaming or discrimination produce a toxic environment for ourselves and others.”

Yet, with some definition, courage and discipline, this kind of behavior can be addressed and an environment of belonging, value creation, flexibility and celebration can be created in its place.

Culture Belongs To Everyone

Culture doesn’t belong to any one department within an organization. Human Resources (or People and Culture) may be the custodians of it, but they don’t own it. Culture is owned by everyone and is the sum of their attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, skills and traditions. As a result, culture can’t be defined by the senior management team alone, a firm of consultants, or a branding agency.

To move away from a toxic culture, employees have to define what a vibrant culture needs to be.

The easiest way to redefine the culture is to take everyone away from their working environment for two days and have them run through structured, facilitated sessions that lead to an agreement on the six pillars of great cultures:

  1. Vision
  2. Values
  3. Personality & Communication
  4. Behavior
  5. Collaboration
  6. Innovation

An aspirational vision statement provides motivation and inspiration for the journey ahead and provides a key principle for prioritizing work. A set of values provides a moral compass for the culture to follow. An understanding of each other’s strengths and communication styles is often determined using a personality survey. An agreement on the behaviors required of each other can address some of the current issues faced. A set of principles is then needed to define how people will work together, and an agreement is needed on how time for creativity and innovation will be built into the working week.

It’s possible – I know, because I run these sessions – to get complete agreement on the 6 pillars in two days and to define a vibrant culture. And, because the staff has spent time defining the culture among itself, there’s immediate buy-in and an improvement in communication.

A different level of energy and commitment emerges to ensure that people who cling to the status quo don’t get in the way of progress.

From Toxic To Vibrant

The two-day definition retreat is the first part of the cultural evolution journey and provides a solid platform upon which to build further.

The second stage requires from 6-to-18 months in which staff consistently uphold what it agreed to, injecting new ideas and managing out those that seek to destroy the culture. Only by holding each other to account and not relying on senior managers to do it on their behalf can a working culture maintain its vibrancy and continue to evolve positively.

It’s vital the organizations that have identified they have a toxic culture undertake meaningful inclusive activity to send a message that “this is different.” Simply hoping that a destructive culture will eventually correct itself is a futile fantasy that will ultimately lead to failure.


Colin D. Ellis is an award-winning international speaker, best-selling author and renowned culture change and project management expert who works with organizations around the world to help them transform how they get things done. Based in Australia, Colin is the author of four books, including his most recent, Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work (Wiley, Nov. 4, 2019). Learn more at

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