Menu Close

Rising above toxic company culture

Jason Larkin

Are you the kind of leader you honestly want to be? Or is your behaviour twisted by underlying toxic attitudes in your organisation? You may not be able to fix this unhealthy culture as a whole, but you can start a mini revolution in your own corner, according to Annie McKee, writing for Harvard Business Review.

Failing to live by your own values in the workplace can leave you ashamed of actions that go against the grain. It could be anything from making jokes at other people’s expense, to choosing the more “acceptable” candidate over the “right” one for the job.

Rather than echoing flaws in your own character, these kind of behaviours often reflect an unhealthy company culture that you find difficult to challenge.

“Culture is an incredibly powerful driver of human thought and behaviour,” writes McKee. “It tells us what’s sacred and profane, right and wrong, good and bad. It provides guardrails that keep us in line and ensure we think, say and do the right thing. ‘Right’ according to the tribe we belong to.”


So how do you know when you’re in the thick of an unhealthy culture and what can you do about it? With your organisation as your defining “tribe”, its values can override ones you belong to in other parts of your life. This is isn’t necessarily a problem, but McKee cites some signs that point to that culture being toxic:

1) You resort to ‘covering’ – This is the case if you feel you must hide important parts of your true character in the workplace in order to be accepted. You could be concealing a particular aspect or circumstance in your life or a positive behaviour, like showing respect for others.

2) You’re under pressure to prove yourself. If your organisation is focused on “winning” at all odds, then you could be under enormous pressure to prove yourself. “In these companies, bullies are tolerated – sometimes lauded – and toxic leaders thrive,” says McKee.

3) You’re expected to overwork. When pressure to succeed comes with an expectation of overwork, that is toxic too. Fuelled by insecurity, that pressure can creep up until you are checking work emails on your phone in the middle of the night.


Once you have acknowledged that the organisation’s culture is unhealthy, you can start to address the situation. McKee says the best way is to start with your own team – a place where you can guide a “resonant microculture”.

These are the first steps she advises:

1) Put your own oxygen mask on first. Work out what is best for you. What do you want for the future, both professionally and personally? What would your ideal culture be?

2) Fix close working relationships. You need people to back your antitoxic movement, so it’s time to build bridges with people who you may have criticised or upset in the past. Ask for their input.

3) Build a new team culture. Give everyone a chance to voice their opinion on how their working lives should be. Be prepared for change to take time and for there to be conflicts with the wider organisation.

When a toxic culture is bringing you and your team down, go back to your core beliefs and values and work out how to make yourself proud.