If you saw green glowing ooze with a nasty vapor rising from it, how close would you get? You wouldn’t find me within a thousand feet of it, depending on the direction of the wind. I think most folks would feel the same way. The crazy thing is we don’t have the same reaction to toxic relationships or environments when we encounter them.

As leaders, we can sometimes even overlook this in our own organizations. There are things that are equivalent to the green ooze and mysterious vapor, yet we think that somehow it will work itself out in due time. If someone showed up to your back yard and decided to dump toxic waste in it, would you be so laissez-faire about it? Yeah, didn’t think so.

As citizens, we rely on the leadership of our governments (local, state and federal) to protect us from irresponsible parties polluting our environment. As employees, they rely on leadership to protect them from irresponsible parties polluting their environment with things that are toxic.

Allowing your culture to become polluted by toxicity is a death blow to your vision. Here are 5 signs of a toxic culture:

  1. Rampant gossip/rumors – When the rumor mill has more productivity than your organization, you are in trouble. The rumors could be about other employees, leadership or strategy. These things develop a life of their own all too quickly, so nipping them in the bud is essential. Make sure you have open 2-way communication so any rumors can be dispelled swiftly.
  2. Us/Them mentality – This can often come from weak leaders. If they don’t know how to communicate well to those they’re leading for fear of push back from their team, they can easily pin it on the organization. This is usually an attempt to show others that they are equally helpless and a victim to the whole affair. The unfortunate part is that they lose credibility and are viewed as weak and easily manipulated by “the establishment”. Continual training and an understanding of how initiatives align with the vision and values of an organization can help overcome this common challenge.
  3. Retaining poor talent – This isn’t just poor performers. You could have an absolute rock star, but their attitude absolutely sucks. Keeping them on board will frustrate the other good performers with a good attitude and they will leave. Likewise, if you don’t hold poor performers accountable to performance standards, your talent pool will automatically default to your lowest accepted level of performance. Clearly communicate what is expected of your talent and immediately address sub-standard performance.
  4. Double standards for leadership – If there are members of leadership who don’t hold themselves accountable to the same standards and expectations as others in the organization, your culture will be one of contempt. The number of incidents of, what amount to performance sabotage, will spike. It is a passive aggressive way to “even the score” in the face of this double standard. Publicly allow people to see leadership adhering to standards, even when it is difficult or unpleasant.
  5. Inconsistency – While being flexible and able to respond quickly to change is important, it is not a good excuse to allow inconsistency to rule the day. People aren’t stupid and when things are inconsistent, leadership is perceived as incompetent. Having a wide spread lack of respect for leadership will make for a very lackadaisical attitude and culture. Make sure the message is consistent with the vision and values that is communicated throughout the organization.
  • Hi, I really enjoyed your “Top 5 signs of a toxic culture” and would like to reproduce it in my Meeting Genius blog. Do you authorize me?


    Raul Candeloro
    Meeting Genius

  • Thanks for asking. I’d be honored!

  • Love the post, terse and concise and to the point. Kudos Sir.

  • Thanks for your comments Joseph!

  • I would like to add one more to this awesome article. Inflexibility. Having such a rigid culture that it does not allow for creativity or leverage the skills of the team effectively.

  • Absolutely Paula. The intransigent leader is one that stifles productivity and that is definitely part of a toxic culture. Thanks for your contribution!

  • Great post. Unfortunately very true observations!

  • Thanks Garry. I appreciate you contributing!

  • Katrina

    I totally agree with your message that, “allowing your culture to become polluted by toxicity” by a toxic leader or manager has many negative effects. This can also be altered by offering specialized coaching to the leader and manager. I say specialized because many of these toxic leaders are in denial that they are the cause of workplace suffering and it takes some doing to bring them around. The organization has only benefitst to address the issue. 1) Employee suffering ends 2) Employees are likely to feel that formerly toxic boss cared enough to work to change, 3)Employees regard employer positively for intervening
    4) Formerly toxic boss might be thankful that the company is investing in him (once he is made aware of his/her impact on others, 5) Employer reduces potential for litigation, attrition, anti-management sentiment by addressing the issue, 6) Employer retains boss’s expertise, 7) Employer is sending a clear message to the organization that the toxic behavior is not acceptable while giving toxic leaders a second chance and coaching help to chance. Thanks for your article. 🙂

  • Very good points Katrina. I appreciate such a thoughtful contribution to this discussion!

  • The goal of most organizations in Romania is to maximize profit by any means. Leaders and decision makers seek personal profit, not company profit. Their ethical management strategy is a Machiavellian one in the sense that it is not necessary to link ethics with organization’s management.
    Therefore, I can say without risk of systemic mistakes that our business ethics or professional conduct are used strictly as tools for public relations, reducing personnel costs and promote a “good guy” image of the one leading the organization with an iron fist. Imagine a trapezoid with the large base down, representing the significant difference between what is said, displayed and even implemented at the organizational level, and the actual mode of action of business managers, trapezoid that, in my view, is the pedestal on which the Toxicity is seated on.

  • Interesting points. There are many things that influence professional conduct; one of which, can be national culture/legislative environment. This can be quite frustrating for people working in that environment. Thanks for your unique perspective and analogy.