• Nikki Trotter, MS, M.A., SHRM-CP, ACC

The Anatomy of a Toxic Organizational Culture

Updated: Jul 13


We all know a toxic culture when we see it. We recognize it because it doesn’t look right or feel right, yet the toxicity continues to prevail and excel; day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. Toxic cultures grow like weeds and they squeeze the life out of employees, the leaders, and the overall organization. These seeds are planted and watered daily and they grow and spread and become what we call: Organizational Behavior(s). These organizational behaviors are the unspoken norms that are cultivated, fostered, and sustained; and make up the anatomy of the organizational culture. As an I/O psychologist and leadership coach, I have experienced this type of culture; and I know the toll and impact that it can take on the health and well-being of #humanresources, #leaders, and #employees. But I also know that every organization has the potential to be a healthy and productive working environment for all. But if you believe that you are working in a toxic environment, and you are not 100% sure, here are some clear signs to affirm your suspicions:

  1. Leaders have titles but no influence. This means that the only leaders that have real influence and can truly empower teams are the Senior leaders at the very top. All other leaders are just "figureheads." This means that their leadership is usually usurped and they are only in that place to manage the daily operations, and not to truly lead with focus and a vision.

  2. Unhealthy competition. Instead of collaboration and knowledge sharing, teams resort to holding information, backstabbing, and having meetings after the meeting. This is because there is an atmosphere that has been created that says we have that us vs. them mentality, and everyone is for themselves. The employees that are "favorites" know who they are and they use this to their advantage to create this hostile and competitive working environment.

  3. Too top-heavy. I will give some organizations the benefit of the doubt for trying to create growth opportunities. However, this creates bottlenecks and all types of issues for leaders to lead when there are multiple levels of leadership for small teams as well as middle managers that are seeking to stretch their developmental capabilities.

  4. No real diversity, equity, or inclusion. Just look at the DEI numbers and you will see that these initiatives are just words on nice-looking paper and they are great for a company's performative position. But the lack of diversity creates exclusive working environments when all hands are not on deck, and not all seats are filled with diverse opinions of thought.

  5. Too much change. There is a tornado brewing in the organization as it relates to change while upper leadership continues to create tsunamis. This creates a lack of mental and physical self-care which ultimately leads to stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression for team members.

  6. No psychological safety. If you speak your mind or if you are too innovative or forward-thinking, your ideas are deemed as "too risky" or if you make a mistake, you have committed a career-ending or career-limiting offense. You are also reprimanded when you debate issues or disagree with leadership.

  7. Survey fatigue. You know the routine! Every six months an employee survey is sent to everyone within the organization asking for feedback and comments. As soon as the feedback is received, no action is taken and the survey becomes an afterthought until the next time. This is one of the most counterproductive and detrimental moves that organizations make, yet they continue to survey and run. There is probably nothing that creates a more toxic and untrusting environment than this one.

  8. Poor leadership. Companies spend billions of dollars a year on leadership programs, yet leaders are not leading effectively as they can be. This is because most leaders are put in leadership positions. After all, they did well as individual contributors. And we fail to assess the most important question that we should be asking a leader; why do you want to lead?

  9. Overdevelopment but no growth. Organizations are struggling to find opportunities for promotion and succession. Therefore, they are relying heavily on stretch assignments and lateral moves. This creates animous because employees want to grow up more than they want to grow out. More focus should be put on growing up because that is the only way employees will feel safe and valued vs feeling like they have to constantly compete to get to the top.

  10. Selective not objective. Organizations fail to create clear and compelling criteria for what it takes to advance through the ranks to leadership. Instead, they use the "tap" method which posits that they have an employee that they like, and/or one that they have mentored and they become the 'golden child' and the one that is next in line for a promotion even if they are not ready or they don't have the qualifications for the job. This creates an instant culture of favoritism and toxicity. Leaders need to create and communicate their criteria for promotions and make sure that they adhere to those guidelines at all times.

Toxic cultures don't just impact organizations, it also affects the emotional, mental, and physical health of their employees. As a coach, my advice to you is that if you are in a toxic working environment, and you need some relief, don't be afraid to reach out for help. There is nothing that is more important than your health and well-being.


What are some other toxic workplace behaviors that you have you experienced?


Nikki Trotter is the Founder and CEO of IO, LLC., a transformational coaching company. I specialize in coaching professional women in leadership from the front line to the C-Suite. I help my clients master the art of resilient leadership to take control of their careers with courage, clarity, and confidence.


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