How can leaders identify and transform toxic team cultures? Toxic work environments are not that uncommon. As a member of many teams as an athlete, a coach, and now an entrepreneur, I can attest that sometimes we find ourselves in work environments that are not positive, communicative, collaborative, or healthy.

I have talked to many athletes of all sports and both genders, business people, top leaders, assistants, educators, medical professionals, and many more who have had to endure a toxic workplace.  

What is a toxic work environment? 

How to Know

In talking with so many folks around the country and in so many different professions and careers, here is a small list of some examples people have shared with me.

  • “I walk into work and it is so negative you can feel it.”
  • “It almost feels like people are trying to take each other out.”
  • “My boss pits people against each other, so there are no wins in the office.”
  • “Our team is not working well together. It’s all for one.”
  • “People are talking behind each other’s backs.”
  • “In our department, morale is low and turnover is high. Lot’s of sick days are used.”
  • “I feel left out of many conversations that are held behind closed doors – in my own department.”
  • “My superior will say one thing to me, and then I’ll hear that something different was said to others in the department.” 

Do any of these resonate with your current situation?  Morale is low. Turnover is high. Folks are missing work due to illness. . . a lot. People are not enjoying the work they do. They look tired and feel tired. There is negativity at every corner, and it feels heavy, like you could cut it with a knife. Do you feel like your team has lost its purpose?

As a leader, what can you do about it?  

Perplexed and confused man wearing a suit and holding a phone, trying to figure out a solution

Tips to Transform Toxicity

A toxic culture is not a fun culture to work in. So what can leaders do to correct the situation, bringing about a more collaborative and positive culture? 

Have a realistic timeframe

With culture, realize it won’t happen overnight. Give yourself some grace with the timeframe for change. It will take planning and management to create the culture you want to see. Depending on how long the toxic culture has been in effect, the transformation could take even longer. It helps to understand how infiltrated the issues are and how far their tentacles reach into the different levels of the organization.

Acknowledge the issues and prioritize steps

You won’t be able to change everything all at once. You must prioritize. Likewise, you can’t prioritize until you acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place. What are the negative behaviors, attitudes, and practices that are contributing to the toxicity? 

Once you understand the issues, then you can decide what’s missing and what needs to be done first? For example, do you need to do more research into the causes of the toxicity, talk to more people, observe more situations? Do you need to meet with upper or middle management, or would it be better to speak directly to the front lines?  

Engage and learn from all levels of the organization. This will help you understand where the main issues lie, so you can determine next steps.  

A boss communicating and engaging his team in a good culture

Communicate your mission

Once you have a plan in place, start sharing that plan. State your intentions to the organization and ask the team to help you rebuild a better culture. Communicate how you intend to do it and how you need their help.  Be crystal clear with your expectations. 

Let the team have a voice in it. According to Forbes Business Magazine, employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work. Discover, from your team, what they believe should happen and allow them to help identify steps toward improvement.  

Take your communication beyond just words. Lead by example, consistently modeling the behaviors you expect from your team. This will help you establish trust as you encourage others and hold them accountable.  

As you see others modeling your vision, praise, encourage, and reward that behavior. 

Empower your team

Empowering your team may be one of the most difficult steps, as you must trust them to implement. You could begin by finding ways to make them feel the value of a culture shift. With team members in the driver’s seat, they should feel valued and supported in helping you strategically figure out what needs to be done. 

Identify and reward people who are going above and beyond to help correct courses on the culture. Get to know your people on a more personal level and work together with them to hit the milestones that were initiated during the planning stages. These connections are vital when it comes to building trust and empowering relationships. 

At the same time, leaders must address the toxic behaviors. Confront and address identified toxic behavior promptly and decisively. Next steps could include training, mentoring, counseling, disciplinary action, or letting employees go. Holding employees accountable sends a very clear message that you are committed to change and that toxic behavior will no longer be tolerated. 

African American man communicating and engaging with his support person at work.

Form a support group

Form a support group for yourself. Eliminating toxic behavior is not an easy job. At times, you might need outside advice, a shoulder to lean on, or a friend to talk to. It pays to have these systems set up beforehand.  

Engage your own mentors, other leaders who have experienced similar challenges, or experts in team culture that you can engage with when things get tough or obstacles seem insurmountable. 

Understand that cultural issues affect all teams. You are not alone. 

Provide resources and support

Ensure that employees have resources, tools, support, and like-minded leaders who all desire a workplace where employees and leadership alike can thrive and be successful. Invest in the employees and help them feed their passions beyond the workplace. 

Employees who engage in outside passions have better work-life blending and seem happier at work. According to Forbes Business Magazine, 87% of employees expect their employer to support them in balancing work and personal commitments.

One study by Joel Brockner, Deanna Senior, and William Welch found that employees who volunteer, outside of work, for causes that they are passionate about seem to increase organization commitment. 

As television host, Mike Rowe explains, “Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.” 

Hispanic woman communicating and engaging with her team and demonstrated measured progress.

Measure progress

Leaders must set up a system of evaluation and feedback. What are the metrics and mechanisms required to measure progress toward the desired outcome? Regular feedback will help both the employees and leaders remain accountable as progress ensues. 

The process should include both individual and collective feedback, ensuring progress throughout all levels of the organizational structure. 

For those employees who won’t adjust mindsets, work habits, or new cultural norms, leaders should not delay in removing them from the culture.  A team cannot inspire peak performance even if only one person is not conforming to the culture of positive cooperation.   

Celebrate the small victories

It’s important to celebrate the victories along the way. Share in, and recognize, the positive behaviors and organizational achievements that align with the desired culture. Continue to reinforce the positive behaviors and put forth the effort to maintain them once arrived.  

Look at the transformation as a long, enduring process that will need to be implemented, fostered, and maintained.  

Realize that many small steps of progress will lead to the transformation you envision and the new culture will drive production upwards and attract a happier workforce. 


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