3 Predictors Of A Toxic Work Culture And How Leaders Can Detox It

Halloween is just around the corner, but the American workforce isn’t running from zombies, werewolves or vampires. They’re jumping ship in droves to escape from spooky workplaces — in some cases described as living nightmares. What could be scarier than “productivity paranoia” —a toxic work environment with a manager breathing down your neck, watching your every move to make sure you’re being productive — where you’re exhausted, walking on eggshells, and could cut the tension with a knife. MIT researchers identified toxic work cultures as the primary drivers of the Great Resignation — more than 10 times more powerful than low pay.

Fed-up with burnout, disrespect, lack of diversity and inclusion and unethical behavior, employees continue to quit or “quiet quit” in mass. According to Gallup, “quiet quitters” make up at least 50% of the US workforce — perhaps even more. And the engagement levels of American employees dropped significantly in the second quarter of 2022 with the percentage of engaged workers remaining at 32%. trend has been thought to be the result of multiple factors such as burnout, poor management, and lack of communication.

The Toleration Clock Is Ticking

More than 90% of North American CEOs and CFOs believe that improving their corporate culture would boost financial performance. Although most leaders acknowledge that their organization’s culture is not as healthy as it should be, many don’t know where to start. But time is running out. “Toxic workplaces are far too common,” said Donald Sull, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-founder of CultureX. “Approximately one in 10 workers view their workplace culture as toxic, and they are sending a clear signal. They will no longer tolerate disrespect, exclusionary behavior, abuse, and other toxic behaviors. Organizational leaders face two choices: detox their corporate culture or the lose the war for talent. “

Building on their previous research, Donald Sull and CultureX co-founder Charles Sull, pinpointed three of the most powerful predictors of toxic workplace behavior in MIT Sloan Management Review:

  1. toxic leadership
  2. toxic social norms
  3. toxic work design.

By identifying and addressing these three factors, the researchers insist that leaders can dramatically improve employees’ experiences and minimize unwanted attrition, disengagement, negative word of mouth and other costs associated with a toxic workplace.

Conducting An Organizational Detox

Based on the examination of over 1,000 studies, the founders of CultureX published an authoritative evidence-based framework that managers can use to perform a cultural detox in their organizations. This includes interventions across the three main drivers of toxic culture:

  1. Leadership. Leaders cannot improve corporate culture unless they are willing to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for toxic behavior. CEOs can keep cultural detox on the agenda by linking cultural improvements to bottom-line benefits, such as lower attrition. Middle managers are 2.5 times more important in predicting employee misconduct compared with company-wide factors.
  2. Social Norms. Social norms, defined as behavior expected and acceptable in day-to-day social interactions, exist within organizations, specific teams, or departments, and they shape subcultures within the company. Toxic social norms increase the odds that even good people will behave poorly. Promoting non-collaborative employees to management can foster cutthroat subcultures that ultimately hurt the bottom line. Toxic leadership can negatively reshape social norms and influence behavior far beyond any one jerk manager’s tenure, persisting through multiple changes in leadership.
  3. Work Design. More than a century of research has pinpointed a handful of elements of work design, such as overall workload and conflicting job demands that consistently predict important outcomes including toxic behavior. Dozens of factors go into work design, but a few specific aspects are especially important in predicting employee stress. When rethinking work design, it’s best to focus on elements of the job known to influence employee stress such as reducing nuisance work, clarifying job descriptions and responsibilities, giving employees more control and helping to reduce stress and improve sleep.

Avoiding The Productivity Paranoia Trap

With the spooky season upon us — or any season for that matter — nothing is scarier than your boss closely monitoring your productivity. Pat Petitti, founder and CEO of Catalant, argues that employee surveillance tools and managers who focus on them measure busyness, not productivity, insisting there’s a critical difference between the two. She believes monitoring employee productivity and performance goes against building a successful business. “Companies that use these tools and practices don’t have a productivity problem,” she asserts. “They have a culture problem.” Leaders shouldn’t fall into the trap of monitoring productivity but on how to build trust with their employees to avoid productivity paranoia.

Carthey Van Dyke, VP of customer success and head of culture at Gryphon.ai believes that successful HR initiatives and business outcomes stem directly from a supportive, empathetic and inclusive workplace culture. By denying employees the space to comfortably work and maintain a sense of autonomy, organizations would likely face an actual productivity issue: time lost due to employees on the job-hunt.

And Donald Sull agrees. “Cultural change requires a holistic approach that incorporates multiple interventions and a sustained focus over time,” he concluded. “Without a commitment from the top team, any organization wide culture change — including a cultural detox — is destined to fail.”

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