The biggest problem for many working people is that the actual work on their desks is the easiest part of the job. Nothing they are responsible for doing at work is especially challenging.
It’s only hard to do the job because of the politics, the stupid rules and the dark, fearful energy that flows throughout the workplace and bogs everyone down. A broken culture makes everything else harder, from organizing projects to getting critical approvals to move your work forward.
There’s no reason for your work to be so hard. Your company’s toxic culture is to blame. It is sludge in your engine that slows down the gears and eventually corrodes them.
The job itself would be a snap if the culture were healthy, but it’s not. Too many smart and capable people end up leaving their jobs not because of the work itself or the compensation plan, but because they were tired of pushing a rock uphill every working day.
I have been there and you probably have, too. You can only push so hard for so long before you stop and ask yourself “Why am I killing myself for this job? No one appreciates what I am doing. What am I trying to prove?
“This is too hard, and I see no signs that things will get any easier any time soon. I can’t do this anymore.”
Most leaders have a hard time frankly acknowledging problems with their company cultures. It is hard for them to look in the mirror and see how they personally have contributed to the toxic culture in their workplace. Fear is the topic we desperately need to talk about at work, but seldom do.
What might a CEO be afraid of? They are afraid of missing their goals, so they bluster and threaten to chop heads. They are afraid of looking stupid in front of their direct reports, so they pontificate on their soapbox when they should say “I actually don’t know what we should do. What do you guys think?”
They are afraid of not looking or feeling like the top dog, so they make pronouncements instead of sitting down to brainstorm with their brilliant colleagues. They are afraid of hearing bad news that might threaten their self-conception, so they create a force field around themselves that keeps bad news out.
Anybody can begin a conversation about the elephant in the room — a broken culture — but everybody also has an excuse that lets them off the hook when the question “Why don’t you say something about the toxic culture?” comes up.
Low-level employees can say “I can’t speak up! I might get fired.” Mid-level managers can say “What can I do to change the culture? I’m just a first-level manager.” Vice presidents can say “I can’t jeopardize my position! My CEO doesn’t want to hear the truth.” Even the CEO can say “My team doesn’t tell me anything. What am I supposed to do if people won’t communicate?”
You will grow muscles when you ask a question or make an observation about something in your workplace that is broken, no matter what your role is. You’ll use your discretion to pick the right topic, the right time and a compassionate approach to raising an issue that desperately needs more air time than it is getting. Maybe it’s the way you manage projects in your company, or role confusion between you and your workmates.
Maybe it’s a pay practice that doesn’t make sense, or a burning issue that everybody knows and worries about but that has never been spoken about other than furtively, in hallway conversations.
The first time you raise a sticky issue at work, it will feel scary — but it will feel more comfortable to speak your truth every time you do it.
Here are 10 signs of a toxic culture:
• The first sign of a toxic culture is a feeling you will pick up when you spend time in a workplace where people don’t communicate, don’t smile, don’t joke and don’t reinforce one another. You will notice that interactions are more formal than friendly and that no one seems happy to be working there. A visitor or newcomer will feel the dark energy while the employees seem oblivious to it. That makes sense — the fish can’t see how murky the water in their fishbowl has become!
• The second sign of a toxic workplace is that people are very concerned about titles, job descriptions and levels in the hierarchy. When you meet someone new in the organization, they’ll be quick to tell you their title and status. Power (the conferred kind associated with a job title or connections to high-level leaders) is more important to the people working in the toxic environment than the mission they’re supposedly pursuing. Status, visibility and “perks” are more important than success measured by other yardsticks — and more important than the trust level on the team, which isn’t even a topic of conversation.
• The third sign of a toxic culture is that rules and policies are very important. It’s more important than the good judgment of your teammates, their combined decades of experience or the rich context of the situation you’re dealing with. Everybody is afraid of getting in trouble for breaking the rules, and so they keep their heads low and try not to step out of line.
• The fourth sign of a toxic workplace is that managers and employees make up two completely separate groups that seldom interact. When they do interact, it’s a one-way communication in which the manager tells the underling what to do. There’s no other give-and-take conversation or collaboration between management and everybody else.
• The fifth sign of a toxic culture is that while it’s well known that employees are unhappy, nobody talks about it openly. HR people may be off-site or just not involved, or they may be frustratingly chirpy and ineffectual as they pretend along with everybody else not to notice the dark and rotten culture. In any case, they are not a resource for employees.
• The sixth sign of a toxic culture is that there is much talk about infractions and demerits but little to no recognition of extraordinary effort or triumphs.
• The seventh sign of a toxic workplace is that people do not speak up even when they are presented with impossible goals, ridiculous plans or patently stupid ideas they are expected to implement. They say nothing, but later they complain to their friends about the stupid ideas and foolish goals.
• The eighth sign of a toxic culture is that the informal grapevine is many times more effective as a communications network than any type of official company communication.
• The ninth sign of a toxic culture is that employees have little to no latitude in performing their jobs. Every procedure is spelled out for them. If they are rewarded at all, they are rewarded for hitting their goals and following the rules, but never for having breakout ideas or pushing for much-needed changes — activities that could get them fired.
• The 10th sign of a toxic culture is that fear is palpable in the environment. Doors slam and whispered conversations take place in stairwells. Everybody is concerned with his or her own spot on the company’s constantly-shifting, internal stock index. They ask one another “Does the big boss like me? What did he say about me?” and fret and worry about who’s up and who’s down. High-level executives jockey for position and shank one another for a favored role or a plum assignment. No one is safe and everyone is on edge.
The final sign of a toxic workplace is that there is no community. The few people who laugh and joke with one another get suspicious sideways looks from people who are too afraid to let their hair down. Outspoken employees and non-traditional thinkers don’t last long. They get disgusted and leave or they are invited to leave when their style clashes with the status quo.
If your workplace matches the items on this list, your culture is in trouble. You can launch a stealth job search.
You can start a conversation with someone you trust about the culture in your workplace. You can pursue your stealth job search and your truth-telling mission in parallel. Both projects will grow your muscles. Both projects will remind you how capable you are!