I often hear people use the term “toxic” to refer to their workplace culture. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Chris Armstrong and Vince Brantley, the co-founders of Veritas Culture, a consulting group specializing in organizational culture change. Chris and Vince argued that, very rarely is an entire organization toxic.
According to Chris, since culture is made up of the collective, the question we need to ask is, “Is the ‘we‘ toxic? Are your behaviors toxic? Well, no. So what is toxic? Because there’s been a toxic person…or a bad decision…they’ll say the culture is toxic.”
Vince added that the few instances in which they have experienced toxic organizational cultures is when, “the majority of the collective has actually given in to that toxicity…they had assumed the belief that these things were never going to change. Once you accept this is the way it is and you become complacent, you are part of the problem.”
In short, when toxic behaviors go unabated, the toxicity spreads like a virus.
So how do toxic people get hired and promoted when they are so bad for the organization? Here’s how it happens:
Often, people with high levels of technical skills or expertise are hired and then rewarded for the results they yield, even when they engage in extremely negative behaviors toward others–condescending, backstabbing, bullying. Nobody holds them accountable for the toxic behaviors. Celia Swanson, former Executive Vice President of Walmart, described just such an experience that highlighted the importance of paying attention and holding people accountable for the way they treat others as much as we do the results they produce.
The challenge with toxic employees is that they often have the political savvy to mask their negative behaviors from leaders (the old “kiss up, kick down” approach). When the organizational culture does not foster safety to report toxic behaviors, or promote a sense of obligation to speak up, it is difficult for leaders to have visibility into who in the organization may be at the heart of the problem.
Author and leadership consultant Simon Sinek uses the example of the Navy Seals, and the process by which they choose the best of the best. Sinek says the Seals base these choices along the axes of performance and trust. He found that the Seals are more likely to choose someone who has lower levels of performance but higher levels of trust, than promote someone who has higher levels of performance but low levels of trust. Sinek says it’s actually really easy to identify the toxic people. “Go to any team and say, ‘who’s the asshole?’ and they will all point to the same person.”
Sinek is spot on. People can easily recognize the toxic folks, and they often quietly talk about that person behind closed doors. Yet they don’t report those behaviors to leadership, even when the toxic individuals are poisoning the organization, lowering engagement, morale, and performance.
Why? The answer is a lack of psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson coined the term psychological safety to describe the need every employee has to be engaged and perform at their peak. Psychological safety is not about being nice to everyone or avoiding conflict. It refers to a culture where people feel safe taking risks, making mistakes, and speaking up when they disagree. When an organizational culture embodies behaviors that build and sustain psychological safety, people feel free to give and receive candid feedback. Toxic behaviors are not tolerated.
So how can leaders root out toxic behaviors and create thriving organizational cultures?
- Hire for trust-building behaviors and technical expertise. Look for people who can illustrate their social skills, commitment to group success, and humility.
- Reward people for trust-building and giving behaviors. Seek opportunities to praise and reward those who prioritize giving behaviors, where they put the interests of others in front of their own.
- Swiftly respond to observations or reports of toxic behaviors. If you witness someone engaging in toxic behaviors, have a conversation with the individual and clearly outline the consequences of their actions if they continue. If others report the behavior, take it seriously and investigate. Don’t let toxic behaviors continue because the person is your highest producer or has a great resume. It’s not worth the long term losses of engagement and talent.
- Meet regularly and privately with direct reports. Kevin McCullen is the CEO of CollegeWise, which not only is the leading college admissions agency in world, but also has one of highest scores in the Gallup organization’s employee engagement surveys (99th percentile) and an almost 100% retention rate over the last five years. When McCullen was asked his secret, he said that every manager, including himself, meet regularly with direct reports in meetings where the sole responsibility of the supervisor is to ask questions with the intention to empathize and learn. They don’t offer advice, criticize, or judge. They listen deeply to understand what their employees and the teams are doing, what challenges they are facing, and what they need.
Culture change can take a good deal of time and effort. Yet, the practices that begin to make sustainable positive changes to the workplace culture are relatively simply, cheap, and easy to begin. So start now.