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Ten Questions Executive Leadership Can Ask to Identify If You Have a Toxic Culture



For most people it is fairly easy to detect the personal qualities and behaviors that exemplify a full-blown toxic leader that creates a toxic culture. Identifying a leader that is in the early stages of creating a toxic culture can be a bit more challenging. Below are some questions to consider when trying to detect a shift in culture that is beginning to become toxic.

1. Are members in the culture allowed to mistreat or disrespect the weakest or lowest members in the organization?

2. Are decisions made in a vacuum or are thought processes concealed from other who should be a part of the decision making process?

3. Are statements that are clearly untrue allowed to stand without being challenged regardless of a person’s authority?

4. Are members of the culture allowed to externalize blame rather than take responsibility?

5. Do leaders in the culture blame others (internally or externally) for lack of organizational performance?

6. Does the culture allow for managers to make decisions based on their own self-interests rather than for the organization?

7. Does the culture encourage and promote yes-people who don’t or won’t challenge the leader’s thinking process?

8. Does members of the culture allow a few vital people to do the heavy lifting while others continue to perform poorly?

9. Does the culture allow for the development of an “inner-circle” (ie. favorites) who are held to a different (ie. lesser) standard of performance?

10. Does the culture allow its members to have an explanation for adverse events that never requires members to take responsibility or require change because of those events?

These are just ten questions that can begin to detect the creation (or existence) of a toxic culture. Of course, this list is not comprehensive; there are other questions and factors that can detect the creation of a toxic culture. Nonetheless, if you can answer “Yes” to 3 or more of these, you may be a part of a culture which is (or heading in the direction of being) toxic.

As I say in every one of my culture presentations, “Culture starts at the top of every organization.” If you are the leader in an organization who has people (managers and/or employees) who are creating a toxic culture which you do not want in your organization; if you have taken the necessary steps to coach, train, and communicate the adverse effect their behaviors have on your organizational culture and there is still no positive change; if you would like to save or improve the culture of your organization, your role is to “set them free.” Give them to freedom to pursue success in another organization. If you are an employee in a toxic culture, it is important to gain a sense of predictability so that you can know when it is most likely for other members in the culture to behave in a toxic manner.

A pattern of toxicity can usually be determined by taking into account the people and/or situations that surround them when they are behaving in a non-toxic manner. This may make their behavior more predictable, and therefore, more manageable. Nonetheless, people who have to manage or cope with the behaviors that exist in a toxic culture have a difficult task before them. Yet several options available to them. There is no option that is right for every situation. All options require a calculated risk for each individual and/or group. Below some of those options are:

  • Stay: This decision will typically require some change in personal attitude or perspective in order to accept the toxic behaviors inside the organizational culture

  • Leave: This decision requires a great deal of consideration balancing the risk of leaving with the long term effects and consequences of staying.

  • Reform: This decision requires risk in the approaching the leaders who are responsible for creating the culture, requesting change, and the consequences that may follow such an approach. This approach is stronger when supported by a coalition of people, but an individual can also attempt this approach if s/he has a strong rapport with the leaders responsible for the culture. If the leader is likely to stay in place, this is the step that will most likely effect change.

  • Revolt: This can be among the most risky decision as it requires the creation of a coalition and the involvement of the higher levels in the organization, such as a member of the board of directors.

The differences in these choices are typically informed by a sense of urgency that is brought to the table by people that are stuck in a toxic culture. Caught early enough in their development, toxic cultures can indeed be reformed if members can agree on the toxic behaviors that need to change.


About the Author

Dr. Gustavo Grodnitzky (Dr. Gustavo) is a speaker, author, consultant, and psychologist whose diverse background brings a unique and multidimensional perspective to his global clients. For the past 15 years, he has focused on engagements with corporate clients, and has worked with Global 1000 companies around the world, as well as with smaller, often family-run, businesses addressing a variety of topics, including corporate culture, emotional intelligence, anger management, and integrating multigenerational workforces.

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