Whether your company is a startup or a mature business, the last thing you need in the office is toxic work culture. Yet, according to a recent study, more than half of tech employees see their current office culture as toxic. That can’t possibly be healthy for employee morale, productivity, or customer focus. The sad part is that many executives still don’t know how to recognize the signs.
I saw some excellent guidance for all of us along these lines in a new book, “Cultural Brilliance,” by Claudette Rowley, who has been helping both big and small companies recognize and fix their cultural problems for almost 20 years. In my own consulting career, I have observed examples of each of her five key signs that your business work culture is not operating in a state of brilliance:
- People are punished for telling the truth. In broken cultures, people are marginalized and ignored when they tell the truth, or get passed over for a well-deserved promotion, when they try to point out flaws in the current system. In a healthy work culture, telling the truth is encouraged, and new ideas are considered vital to the success of the business.
As an executive, I found that the first step toward fixing this is actively listening to people, and not being defensive in responses. It’s fair to ask for positive suggestions and actions to fix problems, as well as more details to get to the source of the problem.
- Leaders ask for data and do nothing about the problem. When leaders ask for more data and don’t respond with a credible action plan, they are communicating a lack of courage, or are unwilling to confront reality. They may be more concerned with their own power or comfort than they are with positively impacting the culture around them.
Even healthy organizations face regular problems, so if you aren’t hearing anything, it probably means that people have given up, or are afraid to bring up issues. Maybe it’s time to leave your office door open, or follow-up and communicate more regularly.
- Your culture generates a high turnover rate. You may have a revolving door as people recognize the truth, burn out, and depart. If you find yourself losing your best people, then it’s certainly time to take a hard look at the culture. Healthy cultures thrive on career development and promotions and don’t wait for people to leave due to frustration.
If you don’t regularly invest in employees through training and mentoring, they won’t invest in you by stretching themselves and tackling risky but critical business change challenges. They need to trust and respect you, as well as peer team members.
- People are jammed into open spaces or crowded offices. This may not sound like a cultural issue, but people won’t collaborate or focus well in crowded, hectic, and noisy environments. You may be saving money on facilities, but losing more in productivity and lack of commitment. Friendly and comfortable workplaces lead to positive cultures.
One of the reasons that Google has consistently been ranked as one of the best company cultures is that they customize their office environments to the people and the role, to make them enjoyable and comfortable, rather than regimented and cold.
- Your culture tolerates unacceptable behaviors. Too many organizations tolerate anti-social or even bullying activities from a few employees, under the false notion that these people or so valuable or hard to replace that the cost is a net positive. It’s time to look at the indirect costs, including lost clients, other worker turnover, and overall productivity.
Remember also that your employees expect the same professionalism and respect from you that you expect from them. I’ve personally been in more than one organization where the manager is more the problem than the solution. A great culture must extend all the way to the top.
Remember, you can’t fix something that you don’t recognize as broken, or don’t know how it’s supposed to work. Since change is always hard, it’s also smart to work on getting your culture right the first time as you build your startup, rather than trying to recover later after it turns toxic. A great culture can save your business, but don’t wait for success to save your culture.