Rob Hartnett

By Rob Hartnett

Toxic Cultures: How to spot them and how to change them around

Toxic Cultures: How to spot them and how to change them around 150 150 Rob Hartnett

While Britney Spears made Toxic a major success in terms of the dance floor it has no place in our working lives. But just like Britney has proven, we are all capable of change.

However toxic work environments are unfortunately more common than most of would like but it doesn’t have to be this way. Toxic workplaces affect more than profits. They can affect mental & physical health, innovation, creativity & our home life with loved ones. Here are some thoughts from my experience both working in and with cultures that could be described as toxic and some ideas on how to change them.

One common element I typically find is that toxic environments can gather momentum quicker when numbers are not being met and the business starts to go into a tough patch. Everyone seems to be happy or at least prepared to put up with things when they are winning.

Examples and signs of factors that elevate or cause a toxic environment are the following;

  • The business is not making its short-term numbers
  • The business starts to compromise its values
  • Customer service is seen as not a priority versus profits
  • Leaders get confused between authority and bullying
  • Team communication comes to a standstill
  • Corporate affairs sanitize all leader communications
  • Passionate employees start to become quiet and non-collaborative
  • Leadership is absent or not seen as collaborative or lacking empathy

With a culture change things are not solved in an event but through a strategic process. This is because the issues are usually more complex than leaders often acknowledge and in my experience the majority of people are firstly at least invested in not changing. As Deepak Chopra pointed out 90% of our daily thoughts are the same ones we had the day before and most are negative. This is why organizational change is hard. Also, my experience with change initiatives has shown you will come across four types of audiences in these percentages.

 20% Change Warriors – they want to improve, they want to get better. They used to be called change agents in1990 but as will see the battle has gone up a notch and they are an integral component of your success.

20% Active Resistors – they will support the change publicly even, but behind closed doors will work the phones and emails to stop the change. These people are influential and heavily invested in the status quo.

20% Resistors – not invested in the past heavily, not as influential as the Active Resistors happy to consider change “as long as it’s not them changing”

40% Sceptics & Fence Sitters who believe it’s a good idea and logical to change but have been scarred before by leaders who “talked the talk” but never “walked the talk” so they are not active unless there is a genuine movement.

What are the key steps to change?


The biggest stumbling block to any change is leadership. If the leadership is not prepared to listen actively (listen with the intent to understand with empathy), acknowledge and then participate in the solution by committing themselves to action such as a coaching program, monthly town halls, and communication that is public and measurable then you will get a blip but no traction and then the Active Resistors, Resistors will have won and the Sceptics will say “I told you so”.

So, leaders must be publicly onboard and active with relentless communication which is both listening & talking and taking action to challenge current processes and “ways things have always been done around here”.

A leadership 360 assessment is a good idea for leaders to take to check on their own leadership style. HR should drive these and it’s important all leaders participate and not just a few.

Psychological Safety

We must get everything out on the table. This is vital. This often does not happen as people don’t feel psychologically safe. Often the best way to do this is online and anonymously so people feel safe and can have their say. One organisation I worked with was struggling with poor customer satisfaction scores and low Net Promoter Scores from its largest customers. This went on for 18 months until they did an anonymous internal NPS and found the scores even lower internally. Now the evidence was in. Employees would not even recommend their own employer to friends and family. No wonder the external NPS was low but now we had a baseline to work from.


We must acknowledge and respect each other’s views, the positive and the negative.  I have found DISC communication styles very useful in this situation. We are all simply wired a little differently and you need to remember we all see the world as we are, not as it is. This is what makes life interesting albeit a little frustrating to each other sometimes. While DISC assessments can be broken into some 64 different styles if I just take the basic four for this exercise you will no doubt acknowledge the following. A leader says to his team: “There are going to be some changes ahead for the business”

D Style           “Great, it’s about time, when do we start”

I Style            “Sounds fun, how can I help, I have some great ideas and I know some people who can help”

S Style             “Interesting, what effect will it have on my team. Have you considered this? What happens if the economy does this”

C Style             “Ok, but what are you really saying. I get the public message but tell me honestly what’s really going on and I need a lot more detail with projected outcomes before I will commit”.

These are just examples of one piece of communication taken four different ways. This is seasoned leaders with significant change experience will tell you it takes relentless communication to effect a change across an organisation and especially one that has been subject to a toxic culture.

Invest in the Leaders

So many leaders are put in leadership positions and given zero leadership training. There are types of leadership. Leading a business, leading a team, and leading yourself. And they go in the reverse order. That is the hardest leadership is leading yourself. Once you can do this you can lead a team and then you can lead a business. So often these steps are overlooked. I see many organizations focus on leader coaching. Leader coaching is vital but coaching is only one form of leadership communication. It is not leadership. A great program I run from John C Maxwell is Developing the Leader Within which teaches the key principles of leadership. My program Habits of High Performance Teams is another for leaders where we stress the need for Team Work. That is looking for opportunities for teams to do work together as opposed to tasks as individuals or coupling. The reality is sometimes we have not equipped our leaders to lead so as a consequence we are surprised. This is an area your HR team might need to look at. Remember leadership is a skill.

Remove Bad Apples…Fast

Steve Jobs and his HR Manager were asked after they had done a re-organisation at Apple why they had a number of holes in the senior executive leadership team org chart. They apparently replied along the lines of “We would rather have a hole than work with an a-hole”. The point being that a toxic bad apple can do way more damage than not having anyone at all and he would rather work a little harder until the right person is found. Reed Hastings the founder of Netflix also remarked “do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high”. Toxic people are the last people you need when you are trying to remove this very element from your team.

Communicating the Vision

We need to ensure the Why is big enough, realistic, well understood as a business. Not just the values but the goals and the actions needed should all connect. Think Purpose-Strategy-Action as The Why, The What & The How.

All people in leadership positions must know how to communicate. Therefore, they need to be trained in presentation skills, one on one skills, and coaching skills. These skills are too important to be left to chance or the hope you hired a good communicator.

One way to prevent a toxic environment in the first place is to ensure that leaders create an inspired vision with their people that is relatable to their roles. When it connects to what they do every day it is so much more powerful. Another program I have had success with leaders is Everyone Communicates But Few Connect which focuses on communication strategies for leaders and works brilliantly with DISC communication styles.


We need to design measures and metrics that can be used to hold people accountable and we need public commitments to the change needed. If you are genuinely serious about changing a toxic culture to one of harmony, empathy and success then you must set metrics that people can be measure the change against. This could be internal satisfaction, internal NPS, number of coaching sessions, number of town halls, numbers of new initiatives suggested or implemented in a quarter.


Accountability used to mean “who do I blame”. Today this is no longer the case. Accountability means taking ownership, being responsible, and accountable for a commitment that was made. Accountability does not only mean leaders and leaders of leaders it means everyone needs to be held accountable for their part in the change journey. Your Change Warriors are a good place to start when looking to appoint accountability leaders and coaches. Remember leadership is situational. It’s a verb, not a noun.

Toxic cultures have no right to be in the work environment. They have never been successful and never will be. If you are working in one see if some of the suggestions above can help you change things around.

Rob Hartnett – Rob is the CEO Founder of Bayside Advisory and a Consulting Principal of DSG Team in Australia Ph 1300 926 540