Overcoming Toxic Culture

By Addam W.G. Marcotte. MSOD

Many of us have been there before… a job that we absolutely dreaded. A job at which gossip and backstabbing were the norm.  A job with a boss that barked orders and refused to listen to suggestions.   A job where the environment was one of blame and finger-pointing, or even worse, no communication at all.  There are a variety of reasons why you might hate the thought of going to work.  And all of these reasons are a result of the company culture – what is and what is not considered “acceptable behavior”.  The only thing worse than being trapped in a toxic culture, is being the leader of a toxic culture… and not knowing what to do about it.

At FMG Leading, we define culture as the set of habitual and traditional ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving in an organization.  All too often, we can describe the things we don’t like about our workplace, but we can’t quite put our finger on why.

The first step to overcoming a toxic culture is defining the current culture using a consistent frame that clearly labels cultural elements in a variety of situations.  You must be able to accurately and consistently describe the pieces of your work environment that are hindering success and engagement.  There may even be sub-cultures within the larger corporate culture, so it is critical to be able to “zoom” in and out of the layers to understand the root of the toxicity.  We call the process used to perform this analysis “culture mapping”.

Think of it in terms of your computer.  When your computer freezes or runs slow, you may run a diagnostic on it to determine specifically which sectors of the hard drive or hardware are causing the symptom.  Without an accurate diagnostic method, you wouldn’t know how to begin solving the dreaded ‘blue screen’ or spinning beach ball.

An example is a former client that was experiencing a toxic culture at one of their call centers.  It was imperative to pull back the curtain in order to understand the source of the pain. Was it coming from headquarters and senior management?  Or was the source something more local?  In this instance, it was the result of tension between unspoken expectations of the operations team and the “siloed” culture within the call center.

To overcome this toxic culture, the organization had to follow these steps:

  1. Define      the current culture (culture mapping)
  2. Identify      elements of the current culture that they wanted to retain
  3. Envision      and articulate what a healthy and productive culture would look/feel like
  4. Create      a formal change plan to bridge the gap between the two

Although it’s easy, and often tempting, to blame a few individuals for a toxic culture, it is often far more complex than that.  Unfortunately, leaders often make uninformed decisions when trying to “fix” their culture, and end up terminating employees, or changing policies and processes that don’t actually have anything to do with the true problem.  An effective culture map helps the organization clearly understand the elements that comprise the current reality, and allows leaders to develop specific action plans that precisely target those unique dimensions.

At the end of the day, organizational culture is about people, not organizations.  And to effectively change an organizational culture, it is critical to first define and measure both the dynamics created when people come together, and the elements that impact their behavior. 

How could “culture mapping” benefit YOUR organization?

To learn more about FMG Leading's culture mapping process, and how it could benefit your organization, call (714) 628-2900 or visit www.fmgleading.com/organization-development.