Toxic team cultures, and how to improve them

Thursday 20 February 2020
You take on a new role, only to discover deep problems with attitudes and culture. How do you go about changing things...?
a glass full of half lemons


“A toxic culture is one of the biggest challenges that a manager could possibly face,” explains Lizzie Benton, culture-detoxification expert and founder of consultancy Liberty Mind UK. “It can be so ingrained.”

Benton helps businesses revitalise their culture for a living. Often, she’s brought in after a cultural change programme has failed. “A lot of the time, managers will come in and do all the legwork to change things but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t get taken up by the team; there’s no buy-in whatsoever.” What’s left is bitterness and distrust. In many recent high-profile company failures, such as at Carillion, a toxic culture has been the root of financial problems.

The culture context

Managers who try to change the culture of their own teams in a wider toxic environment will find it particularly difficult, and especially so if they’re the only ones trying to give their team more autonomy.

“If you feel quite confident in letting your team be responsible for their work, while micromanaging is going on in other departments, it can be difficult not to be pressured to follow suit because what you’re doing is going against the grain.”

Crucially, while improving the culture of a team or division can be difficult, it’s not impossible – but it will take careful management in order for it to work.

Find the root of the problem

One of the first steps towards detoxifying a culture is to find out why it’s toxic in the first place. Some key questions:

  • Are there systems in place that favour certain employees or departments over others?
  • Is it something to do with individual and cross-organisational management styles?
  • Are there processes in place that make people feel constrained?
  • Are there individuals spreading negativity in the office, such as microaggressions?

You may not be able to resolve the issue completely, so that shouldn’t necessarily be your goal. If the culture is toxic, you’re better off creating a new one. Ask people for feedback: find out what they think needs to happen in order to improve the company culture.

“Getting feedback and input in those early stages is really important because then you can build some engagement,” says Benton. “It’s all about understanding what your team really values, whether it’s flexible working or a more egalitarian approach to benefits and bonuses. If you can’t change the vision and the values of the overarching company, you and your team can create your own vision and values.”

How to get honesty in a culture of fear

If the culture is extremely toxic, it’s possible that employees could be so fearful of repercussions that they don’t feel they can be honest. Benton recommends that you send out an anonymous survey with some direct questions to make sure you get useful responses.

Once that is complete, arrange for some one-on-one discussions with each member of your team. Make it clear that it is a private, open space and they can talk to you about anything without fear of it going anywhere.

“Look for signs of things that might be unsaid and draw them out: ‘I can tell that’s something that you don’t really want to talk about. Why is that?’”

Go for quick wins

Once you have an idea of what needs to be done to make improvements, you can create a plan for how the team will work together in the future. Outline a set of values that establish what the new culture will look like.

Once this is done, you will have to follow through on these plans quickly to cement the engagement and trust you’ve built up so far. In a toxic culture, employees are more likely to be cynical about attempts to make changes. Look for any quick wins that you can implement immediately.

Lay out your strengths and weaknesses as a team from a cultural perspective and look for the practical improvements you can make to improve working practices – for example, streamlining processes to give team members more autonomy.

“Even a small thing could rejuvenate people and help them to switch their mindset slightly,” says Benton.

Once you’ve gone through all of the quick wins, move onto the bigger projects. “These will take time and will need to be tested as well.”

How to handle toxic leadership

“It’s very difficult when the toxicity is coming from the top because we can’t change somebody’s mind for them,” says Benton. “They have to shift their own mindset.”

Leaders need to be fairly conscious and empathetic to be receptive to cultural change. When you speak to them about improving people processes, the best outcome will be you opening their eyes to a new way of working – though you have to be prepared for some pushback.

“If they really won’t change, and you want to improve your team’s culture, you’ll definitely have to navigate around it...Treat your team and department as its own ecosystem within the organisation. Otherwise, anything that you do could be easily impacted by wider issues. You have to take in the messages and objectives of the wider organisation and choose how you reflect that and filter it out to the team.”

In short, you need to embody the changes you want to see within your company’s culture. The more you cultivate and spread positive energy, the more likely people are to mirror your attitude and actions; it’s contagious.

You can read other articles in this topic published by CMI, such as How to Recognise (and Reinvigorate) a Stagnant Office Environment. You can also find lots more insight into organisational cultures and how to improve them on CMI’s resources ManagementDirect, which is free for members.