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5 Steps to Clean Up a Toxic Workplace Culture




High performers leave toxic cultures. But they leave some questions behind:

Are remaining employees all toxic low-performers?

What guarantees that high-performers will not be toxic in their new workplace? 

The best way to understand the boundaries of our capabilities is to test them and go as far as we can. We can see the border barriers between our capabilities and our potential when we come

close to the border.

High-performers have a more realistic understanding of their potential because they live in the vicinity of their borders. They can cross their internal walls if they have a strong will. When they think that dealing with external walls of a toxic culture is not worth consuming time, however, they leave either the job or their high-performance.


Some symptoms of toxic cultures are;

  • Disrespect: The capacity to reason is the inherent worth of human beings. The more we use this capacity, the more value we create and the more valuable we feel. The opposite is equally valid. Behaviors that block our capacity don’t let us create value and cause us to feel worthless.

  • Excessive Control: Making use of employees as tools to maximize profit in the short term creates fear of failure. Stressors cause brains to leave the productive mode and switch to defensive (resistance) mode.

  • Office politics: Hidden agendas and conflicting self-interests create silos to be protected. Threats are perceived everywhere in the organization. Group survival loses its meaning, destroying the seeds of collaboration.

  • Management privileges: Status counts more than reason. Managers don't prefer to be role models and teach their problem-solving skills. Criticism of opinions isn't welcome.

  • Resentment: Employees lose their engagement if the system doesn't respect their worth. They stop providing suggestions for improvement.

  • Irrational behaviors: The organization isn't attentive to practices that have a substantial influence on the perceptions of employees. Ignorance can’t change the fact that every action, done or not done, has a positive or negative impact on the culture. Employees experience difficulty in segregating right and wrong behaviors because the definition and examples of the "right behavior" are either unclear or non-existing.

  • Gossips: The lack of objective information and clear guidelines doesn't let the employees build a complete picture of what is going on and why. Gossips love to fill the holes thus created. Indifference to gossiping creates a trustless culture, which makes the gossipers unhappy first.


General recommendations for dealing with toxicity

A summary of popular suggestions that you can read everywhere:

To Top executives:

  • Regarding culture, everything starts at the top

  • Beware that high performers leave and damage the company

  • Build respectful and trustful relations

  • Give employees development opportunities

  • Encourage autonomy in decision making

  • Reduce stressors and focus on long-term development

  • Encourage feedback and take sincere action

To employees:

  • Avoid companies having a toxic culture

  • Move to a better company if you are a high performer

Questions that are still open

  • High performers are the first to leave the toxic cultures, and their absence damages the performance of the company they quit. This fact is powerful enough to change the paradigms of human-centric leaders. Does it impress a toxic leader equally?

  • If the culture is so vulnerable to toxicity and is so dependent on "the Top," what happens when the top executive changes? Does culture change rapidly?

  • High-performers can find positions in companies with thriving cultures. What about the remaining majority?

  • Is accepting and internalizing the current condition the only option for those who remain?



Something is missing in this equation.

Is it fair to say that all the employees who don’t leave a toxic culture are toxic persons? They stay together with toxic ones, perhaps because they don't want to take the risks of changing the job, or they believe that the situation in the new company will be more or less the same.

The suggestions above might lead to the wrong conclusion that employees who remain are all low-performers. Even low performers have high potentials. Even those who give way to toxic behaviors feel resentment at the same time because their potential remains locked.

Many CEO's who transferred after a brilliant success story in one company failed in the new one. Some possible reasons: a) They are experts in one area but not experienced in management. b) They are good managers, but resistance is too strong at the new company. c) They lived in toxic cultures but not learned how to tackle it by contrasting the status quo.

If we want to list the symptoms and remedies of toxic workplace culture, we can do it at a specific point in time. This list quickly loses it's validity because the culture changes as time changes. Seeing culture not as static but as a continuously evolving process helps us to define symptomatic behaviors associated with toxic cultures as a function of time. We can anticipate the future of the culture better if we understand its evolution in the past.

No one can be happy by continuously escaping from pain and unhappiness. We can define "rational" and "right" only if we know what "irrational" and "wrong" are. Leaders can learn irrational/wrong behaviors and develop a skill to tackle them, through their active exposure to toxic behaviors. That's why great leaders know the problem well and can develop effective counter-strategies, whereas clumsy leaders can't, due to the avoidance behavior they have been developing.

If this line of thinking is right, then great leaders of the future are the ones who are exposed to toxic behaviors and taking responsibility to deal with them today. What exactly are they doing today?

Indifference is toxic too!

I have seen organizations where everybody thinks it's the leader at the top who is responsible for everything that damages peace of mind at work. The root of this blaming game lies in the behaviors of the middle-management. If middle-managers are not aware of the vital role they have in developing the culture, they don’t take responsibility and address everything to “the Top.” Thus, they become the Role Models of accountability avoidance.

Blaming is a defensive behavior, and it's toxic. We can rightfully blame a former executive for creating defensive behaviors by micro-managing and imposing fear. Still, knowing a fact brings a responsibility: Every employee has an encouraging/discouraging effect on toxicity with whatever they do, and they don't.

 Accountability lets us realize that we are the parts of the toxic cultures in which we live. In a culture where everybody finger points to "the Top," the direction to which we turn our heads is crucial. If we look at "the Top" as all do, then we should have forgotten that we are “the Top” for employees we lead.

 Giving in to a toxic culture is an option that every employee can select. Staying indifferent to toxic behaviors, however, is not an innocent decision as it seems. It lets poison spread in the organization. Isn't it also valid for individuals and society?


Make your contribution

Role modeling of executives is crucial in building a culture in which employees voluntarily leave their defensive positions and decide to bring their potentials into life. Still, some factors limit the effectiveness of even a good role model. Employees who are in direct contact with executives can understand their values objectively. The rest of the organization can learn the values through whispering, which is a high-speed but unreliable tool. Various communication schemes help, but can't guarantee how the values are perceived and will affect behaviors.

Our brains are hardwired to complement available sensory data with concepts, preconceptions, desires, and beliefs readily available in our minds. The brain does this complementation at an incredible speed to build a complete picture, which is understandable (perception). The less objective sensory data is available, the higher the variety of perceptions in different minds will be.

Of course, you can't explain the reasons for your behavior to employees all the time. However, it's wise to keep in mind that irrational beliefs, desires, and concepts of some others will fill every hole that you leave. Gossiping, which is not only toxic but also highly contagious like itching and yawning, likes to fill such gaps.

There is a more effective way of blocking arbitrary behavior than listing the rationale behind all your actions: Standardizing the values as the foundation of your behaviors, and conceptualizing them. Then, every other mind who knows the values (or principles) as standards (concepts) can evaluate and elaborate any behavior based on these standards.


5 Steps to develop and protect desired behaviors

Mostly, company values are only some words that are open to interpretation differences or even unknown by employees. Defined competencies, if there are, generally don't describe company-specific behavior expectations and are rarely referenced.

Behaviors at the individual level are driven externally by systems and internally by personal values. To develop group behaviors sustainably, seek consensus on shared values, and support desired behavior using systems.



1. Discuss values: It's not possible to create a culture from scratch. However, it's possible to assess the current condition of values that drive cooperation and engagement. You can discuss the values in a company-wide workshop and seek consensus on shared values to strengthen.


2. Link values to behaviors: Values don't drive behaviors as long as they remain on the walls or the website of your company. Clearly define how values should guide decision-making processes at all levels. This effort defines competencies. Amazon and Toyota are good examples that link values to behaviors in a way that understandable to all employees.


3. Teach competencies: If you use competencies only as pass/fail criteria in Assessment Centers, it causes demotivation because employees can't understand the rationale behind. General personal development training barely helps to build a group behavior because they don't stem from company-specific needs and desired behaviors. Learn the competencies, apply and teach them in practice. One can outsource many things, but not Role Modeling.


4. Assess behaviors: Encouraging right behaviors shrinks the playground of irrational and toxic behaviors. Actively use the competencies as criteria to assess right/wrong behavior in the recruitment, performance appraisal, and promotion processes. Develop your HR systems to protect and develop desired behaviors.


5. Ask for feedback: The best way of understanding the effectiveness of your behavior related systems is to ask employees' opinions frequently. They will tell you exactly where and when your systems fail to create desired behaviors and leave space for toxic ones. The trick in this game is not to defeat toxic behaviors but to leave them no space.



I worked in automotive OEM's for nearly 30 years. I led various functions, always as a practitioner, and experienced turnarounds / Lean Transformations three times. It was typically the "need to change" that triggered the need to define what toxic is.


When you start the change, the strength of the settled culture discourages your will to combat. It sounds logical to move to a better culture that lets you fulfill your capacities. On the other hand, the need to change will come over there soon, too. You can't realize your potential by resisting the change. Therefore, it's the skill "managing the change" that counts wherever you go or stay. A skill is developed through practice.


When you are not satisfied with the performance, pushing disengaged people harder sucks their energy and doesn't bring sustainable development. Sometimes, even engaged employees can't deliver the desired results. A better approach is to search the solution in the area of committing to shared values and creating long term synergy. There is always room for improvement in this area and there will always be as the boundary of the potential is undefined.


Everybody has a "Top." Focusing on your behaviors instead of challenging the behaviors of "the Top" shows you the empty spaces you leave. Continuous improvement of behaviors (competencies) when managed by a systematic approach like Lean, allows you to lead the culture. The desired behaviors gradually expand to the empty areas that would otherwise be occupied by irrational behaviors. This effort doesn't only develop your "power to change" but also creates a high-performance culture in the area you feel accountable.


What prevents you from taking accountability?

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