Toxic cultures…and how to change them

toxic culture

In a small business, one of the toughest issues is growth and growing with the same culture you started the business with. Many times, I have seen great small businesses make an acquisition or get acquired and then the business results start to fall away often because the culture is lost or, worse, a toxic culture starts brewing.

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 focus on results & not their people.
  • Team communication comes to a standstill.
  • Passionate employees start to become quite and non-collaborative.
  • Leadership is absent or not seen as collaborative or lacking empathy.


The biggest stumbling block to any change is the leadership. If the leadership is not prepared to listen actively (listen with intent to understand with empathy), acknowledge and then participate in the solution by committing themselves to action and communication that is public and measurable then you will get a blip but no traction.

Psychological safety

We must get everything out on the table. This is vital. This does not happen as people don’t feel psychologically safe. Often the best way to do this is online through a leader 360-degree survey or a survey on internal employee satisfaction done anonymously so people feel safe and can have their say.  Another way is with a trusted external facilitator.


We must acknowledge and respect each other’s views, the positive and the negative. Male, female, young, old it does not matter. All people must feel they have been listened to.

Remove bad apples…fast

Steve Jobs was asked after he had done one of his many re-organisations at Apple why he had a number of holes in his senior executive leadership team org chart. Steve apparently replied along the lines of “I would rather have a hole there than work with an a-hole”. His 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.

Communicating the vision

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.


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 measured against. This could be internal satisfaction, number of coaching sessions, 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. 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, Independent Executive Director John Maxwell Team and Director, The Hartnett Group