Signs You May Be Working in a Toxic Culture
I once worked for a company that had a toxic culture. I didn’t know the term at the time; I just knew that blaming and finger-pointing were the norm. Everything that went wrong—and lots did—was someone else’s fault. It was bad enough that the relationship between IT and our customers was adversarial, but so was the relationship between IT departments. It took me too long to realize I needed to leave, but thankfully, I eventually did.
In general, certain patterns of behavior define a toxic culture. A key one is the pattern of blaming I experienced. It’s an us-versus-them mentality. Dividing the world into an in-group and an out-group may be an innate human tendency, but when this tendency reaches such an extreme that doing your job is a constant struggle, it’s a sign of toxicity.
Another quality of toxic organizations is the pervasiveness of rumors and gossip. Rather than a pattern of clear, consistent, frequent communication, hearsay is the communication norm. The result is people whispering among themselves, trying to figure out what and whom to believe, leading to employees being too distracted and demotivated to focus on their work.
Also common in toxic organizations is the tendency to keep poor performers on the payroll. Any organization can end up with employees who seemed qualified during interviews but proved, once on the job, not to be. And granted, terminating an employee can be administratively and emotionally (and sometimes legally) difficult, so it’s understandable that such employees may be retained instead of dismissed. But the problem in toxic organizations is that these people are not only kept on, they’re put in positions of leadership and authority. When that happens, everyone who works with and for these people suffers.
Other indicators of a toxic organization are people who hoard information to exert their feeling of power; an emphasis on making your numbers no matter what it takes; and performance expectations that are unclear and inconsistent, so you never know how you’ll be evaluated.
Any of these indicators by itself may reflect an isolated situation, but a pattern of behavior that includes many of these factors suggests toxicity. Leaving the organization may be the only out. But if that’s not feasible (or if you like the challenge of turning things around), there may be a lot you can do, even by yourself and on a small scale, to counter the toxicity. It won’t happen overnight, but every little bit helps. The most important thing is being aware that the pattern of behavior you’ve experienced isn’t normal. With that awareness, you can consider your options.