The last word that any leader wants to hear mentioned in a conversation about their team’s culture is the word toxic. It evokes images of something that is putrid and spreading, something noxious that cannot be contained. In fact the technical definition of the word toxic is “poisonous; very harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way.”
No leader sets out to build a toxic culture on their team. In much of the work we do with executive leaders and teams who are seeking to transform their organizational culture, we hear similar stories:
We were a small, scrappy team. A startup or a church plant. We were all on the same page, and all really owned the vision and the mission wholeheartedly. And then things grew. Which meant more people to hire and manage, more lines in the budget, more customers or clients to keep happy. Before we knew it, we looked around and realized that a culture had emerged, but not necessarily on purpose. It wasn’t exactly what we hoped for. But we were busy--with deadlines to meet and marketing to do and fires to put out. We didn’t have time to address it. So things stayed that way. Nothing got better. In fact, it got worse. And now here we are.
What are some tell-tale signs that your team culture is becoming toxic?1. Ideas and decisions are met with cynicism.
In a toxic culture, enthusiasm is hard to come by. New ideas, different approaches, and decisions about direction are met with questions. There’s a difference between a question that communicates genuine curiosity and a posture to understand and questions that express doubt in motives and mistrust. See, trust is a key component in a healthy team culture, and cynicism is a warning sign that trust has eroded.
2. Gossip is the norm.
In a toxic culture, team members are often left wondering if they’re being talked about when they leave the room. What lurks beneath gossip is insecurity, unhealthy competition, and a scarcity mentality. These do not create a stable foundation on which to build collaboration or connection.
3. Confusion is more common than clarity.
On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the very base of the pyramid is formed by physiological needs, those aspects of life that are simply necessary for survival (like food, water and shelter.) If the same idea is applied to the workplace, the very base physiological needs your team members must have met in order to “survive” at work include clarity about the expectations they are to meet and assurance that they have what they need to meet them. If they don’t know how to get answers to their questions, there’s no path to the clarity they need in order to thrive.
While examining traits of an unhealthy culture can sting when we see them rearing their ugly heads among our own team members, there IS hope in this equation. The good news is that toxicity isn’t the only thing that is contagious in teams. With intentional, consistent effort, you can cultivate in your team healthier habits and behaviors that, over time, catch on, spread, and lead to a thriving team dynamic.
It starts with an honest look at where toxic traits exist and with honest conversations about their causes. Only when we investigate the sources of mistrust, confusion or insecurity can we hope to uproot them. Rest assured, leader, that this excavation process is worth the discomfort (and, at times, pain) it involves. Each healthy seed you plant and cultivate, with patience and persistence, will yield health eventually.
About the Author
Jenni Catron is a writer, speaker, and leadership coach who consults churches and non-profits to help them lead from their extraordinary best. She speaks at conferences and churches nationwide, seeking to help others develop their leadership gifts and lead confidently. As Founder and CEO of The 4Sight Group, she consults with individuals and teams on leadership and organizational health.
Jenni is the author of several books, including Clout: Discover and Unleash Your God-Given Influence and The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership.