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How to Spot a Toxic Culture in Your Business

Great company cultures aren’t necessarily about having an open floor plan, ping pong tables, and an in-house frappuccino bar. I know many organizations that have those things, AND that comes with high turnover, low morale, and an inability to execute effectively on a consistent basis. I also know other organizations with none of those things that are healthy. They have a fierce conflict that leads to deeper buy-in, have the desire to serve others for the good of the organization, and have 100% engagement in the task at hand. 

The difference? Toxic culture in your business. 

What Does Toxic Culture in Your Business Look Like?

Let’s take a look at a few cultural symptoms that can gradually raise the toxic culture in your business. After we look at those, we will give you ten questions that will help expose toxic attitudes or behaviors in your culture. Some of these may start small, but as the toxicity level rises they begin to kill the culture. 

Honestly, no matter how great your culture is, we all have blind spots. The sooner we can identify them the better. 

Let’s take the word toxic and use it as an acronym to help remember these five T.O.X.I.C. culture symptoms. 

It’s no fun to have to look over your shoulder in the office and wonder when you are going to be stabbed in the back again. When trust has become a foreign language, office politics dominate the culture and backbiting is the theme of most days. A lack of trust does not mean nothing will be done, but work that is accomplished will be done in isolated silos. You will have compliance but fail to capture the heart of your team. Best practices will not be shared for fear of others “stealing” ideas. Few will admit weaknesses for fear of being used against them, and managers will not be willing to train high-potential employees because they fear they may pass over them for new positions. Did you notice a theme? Fear. That’s the toxic culture in your business. 

In contrast, teams with real trust aren’t afraid to admit mistakes, are open to others’ ideas, and readily share best practices for the good of the organization. They are not consumed with worry about how others may hurt them in the office. They are free to engage clients and customers at a higher level. Real ambition exists, but because there is trust it’s directed toward the good of the organization. Trust tears down the silos that exist within an organization and speeds up the rate at which work can be done.

The Importance of Sharing Stories

Stories are a big deal. Methods and systems are beneficial because they provide structure and help keep us on the right road. But the motivation and courage to keep moving forward comes from the stories we hear and see and experience. Stories give us hope, provide the framework for a meaningful life, and bring energy to the mundane. As you begin to understand the major events and people that have impacted the lives of your team, you will develop a more clear understanding of motivations, beliefs, and behaviors that govern their day-to-day. 

As a matter of fact, this may totally change the way you view someone. It should! As a leader, you’re constantly learning how to best engage those around you. To ask someone their story is to show them value, worth, and genuine interest. 

The movie Amistad is based on the true story of America’s slave trade. The film documents the saga of an 1839 mutiny aboard a slave ship, Amistad. Much of the story revolves around the courtroom as lawyers desperately battle for the slaves. In one scene, abolitionist Theodore Joadson seeks the legal advice of John Quincy Adams. Adams challenges Joadson by letting him know that in a courtroom the best story wins. In order for Joadson to win this case he would not simply need to know much about the slaves, but needed to find out who they really are and tell that story. They were real people with real histories, families, and struggles that deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. Their stories won the day. 

People Are Crucial

The people you work with are no different. They deserve to be known. Share some of the major events that have shaped you first and then ask for theirs. Organizations and leaders who genuinely know and value their people understand their true desires and as a result access deeper motivation and engagement at work. Those who don’t will kill the culture. 

In today’s workplace more than ever (especially with millennials), your people long to do meaningful work. That doesn’t mean your product in and of itself has to have some deep, existential meaning behind it. Think about Tom’s Shoes. A hugely successful company that sells shoes (and many other things nowadays). There is nothing about shoes that screams world peace, but in choosing to give a pair away for each one sold deeper meaning was given to an otherwise mundane industry. Zappos invests millions back into employee development simply because it cares about them and knows if they are happy in their work, they will serve customers in remarkable ways. The result? A highly engaged workforce that does add value to the bottom line. 

If you primarily focus on bottom-line profit, your people will notice. As a result, they will stay as long as the “deal” they are getting is good for them. If a better one comes along they will be gone, and quickly. Understanding people’s desire for something more will allow you to gain greater loyalty, decrease turnover, and increase employee engagement. 

The Importance of Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Indifference is the opposite; instead of empathy, you display coldness towards teammates. The office culture is filled with a lack of enthusiasm for work and a callousness toward the issues others are facing. In many business scenarios, empathy is viewed as soft or weak. But it is not a weakness. It is actually a sign of great strength and humility. Empathy is being willing and able to put yourself in the seat of another person and understand how they may experience you or a decision you are making. It lets them know they are seen and heard in the midst of conflict and change. 

In order to demonstrate true empathy, team members have to step outside of their own selfish ambition. It is not an easy thing to do, but it radically increases engagement and buy-in. The lack of empathy will produce a team that does what it’s told because it has to, not because their hearts are engaged. There is a measurable difference between the two, demonstrated in team energy and morale. 

Before you charge into the next meeting with a set of marching orders, take five minutes to consider how they will impact your team. Try to sit in their seat. It will make for a much healthier culture. 

Each and every person on your team has personal goals. They may not be written on paper and prioritized, but they do have them. The organizations and leaders that understand this and effectively relate company goals to personal goals will harness the energy that others miss. 

Imagine this scenario. A team member is about to be a new dad. You are about to ask him to take a sales job that will require him to be on the road several days out of the month. He longs to be a good dad and being on the road that much seems to be in conflict with this desire. Your ability to effectively bridge that gap as a leader will hinge on whether or not he understands how taking the role and helping the company reach its goals will in the long run help him be the dad he desires to be. This isn’t easy. It takes effort and many conversations; but the organizations who take the time to do this will win with decreased turnover and increased buy-in. 

There you have it. Five toxic elements that if not recognized and dealt with, will eventually poison and kill a culture. 

Toxic Culture in Your Business Symptoms Team Assessment 

Use the ten statements below to ask questions and assess the level of toxic culture in your business. 

Ask your team to rate each of the following areas on a scale of 1-10. One rating means it’s not being done and definitely a cultural symptom, while numbers moving toward ten represent the area being a real strength. Be sure to share the WHY behind each answer. 


  1. We operate cross-functionally and not in silos within our team. There seems to be a healthy dialogue around projects and a willingness to help others win.
  2. We readily share ideas and are not afraid to train others when they come on board our team. 


  1. We know and understand each other’s personal and professional stories in a healthy and meaningful way. 
  2. Understanding those stories impacts the way we interact with one another regularly. 

More Than a Profit: 

  1. We feel our work is meaningful and that although profits are important, they aren’t the only thing our organization focuses on day-to-day. 
  2. We see that through intentional efforts to give back within the community. 

Empathy or Indifference: 

  1. When decisions are made, it feels as though the leadership makes an effort to understand how it will affect team members even when our input may not change the decision. 
  2. Our team feels connected and works hard to understand where each other is coming from in working together on projects. 

Company Goals are Connected to Personal Goals: 

  1. Our leadership understands our personal goals and desires and seeks to connect them to personal desires. 
  2. Our personal lives are taken into consideration as the workload is assigned and deadlines are formed.