3 predictors of a toxic work culture and how leaders can detox it


Halloween is right around the corner, but the American workforce isn’t shying away from zombies, werewolves, or vampires. They jump ship en masse to escape frightening workplaces, sometimes 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 productive – where you you’re exhausted, walking on eggshells and who could cut the tension with a knife. MIT researchers have identified toxic work cultures as the main drivers of the Great Quit — more than 10 times more powerful than low pay.

Fed up with burnout, lack of respect, lack of diversity and inclusion, and unethical behavior, employees continue to quit or “quiet quit” in droves. According to Gallup, “silent quitters” make up at least 50% of the American workforce, maybe even more. And US employee engagement levels dropped significantly in the second quarter of 2022, with the percentage of engaged workers remaining at 32%. The trend is believed to be the result of multiple factors such as burnout, mismanagement, and lack of communication.

The tolerance clock is ticking

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

Building on their previous research, Donald Sull and CultureX co-founder Charles Sull identified three of the strongest 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, researchers emphasize that leaders can significantly improve the employee experience and minimize unwanted attrition, disengagement, negative word of mouth, and other costs associated with a toxic workplace.

Conduct organizational detox

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

  1. Leadership. Leaders can only improve corporate culture if they are willing to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for toxic behaviors. CEOs can keep cultural detoxification on the agenda by linking cultural improvements to net benefits, such as reduced attrition. Middle managers are 2.5 times more important in predicting employee misconduct than firm-wide factors.
  2. Social Norms. Social norms, defined as expected and acceptable behavior in everyday social interactions, exist within organizations, specific teams or departments, and they shape subcultures within the company. Toxic social norms increase the chances of even good people misbehaving. Promoting non-collaborative employees to leadership can foster cutthroat subcultures that ultimately hurt the bottom line. Toxic leadership can negatively reshape social norms and influence behavior far beyond a jerk manager’s tenure, persisting through multiple leadership changes.
  3. The design of work. More than a century of research has identified 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 job design, but a few specific aspects are particularly important in predicting employee stress. When rethinking work design, it is best to focus on those elements of work known to influence employee stress, such as reducing heavy work, clarifying job descriptions and responsibilities, giving employees more control and help reduce stress and improve sleep.

Avoid the trap of productivity paranoia

With spooky season upon us – or any season for that matter – nothing is scarier than your boss keeping a close eye on your productivity. Pat Petitti, founder and CEO of Catalant, says employee monitoring tools and the managers who focus on them measure activity, not productivity, insisting that there is a key difference between the two. She believes that 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 says. “They have a culture problem.” Leaders shouldn’t fall into the productivity monitoring trap, but about 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 results stem directly from a supportive, empathetic and inclusive work culture. By denying employees the space to work comfortably and maintain a sense of autonomy, organizations would likely face a real productivity problem: time lost due to employees looking for jobs.

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


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