Turning a toxic workplace culture around is not easy, explains Doug Dickerson

Who you attract isn’t determined by what you want. It’s determined by who you are.

John Maxwell

A quick “toxic workplace culture” Google search netted more than 43 million results. To say that toxic workplace cultures are not prevalent would be grossly inaccurate.

What is a toxic workplace culture? How do you know if you are in one? What can be done about it? These are more than just curious questions. For far too many, these are some of the most relevant questions many in the workforce want answers to.

A good working definition comes from a post at CareerPlug. They define a toxic work environment as a “workplace where a negative atmosphere caused by coworkers, supervisors, and/or company culture makes it difficult to work or progress in a job.” In the same survey, 87% of respondents, when asked, said they had experienced such an environment.

My purpose here is not to throw around too many statistics and figures. That toxic workplace culture exists speaks for itself. But I will sparingly use some for the sake of context.

Writing in Forbes, Bryan Robinson, author of Chained to the Desk in a Hybrid World, says, “More than 90% of North American CEOs and CFOs believe that improving their corporate culture would benefit financial performance. Although most leaders acknowledge that their organization’s culture is not as healthy as it should be, many don’t know where to start (emphasis mine). But time is running out.”

This admission of not knowing where to start is a telling revelation as it relates to leadership. Knowing that there is a problem does not translate into being able to do something about it. When/if leadership is paralyzed by the inability to act in a decisive way, the people – the culture – suffer. And what’s troubling about this is people in the organization are not waiting around for things to improve. Employees who are tired of waiting are moving on. Can you blame them?

My leadership mentor, John Maxwell, says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” And as it pertains to toxic workplace cultures, the absence of engaged leadership creates a void (intentionally or by default) that must be filled. Unfortunately, this is the root of many toxic workplace origins – not exclusively, but certainly a strong contributing factor.

So what’s the starting place for leaders? Here are some starting points for consideration.

Leaders Must Define the Culture

Simon Sinek says, “Corporate culture matters. How management chooses to treat its people impacts everything – for better or for worse.”

And this is where leaders must step up. The type of culture you want is determined by who you are. The creation of your corporate culture begins with the leader and expands from there. In order to build a culture of excellence, integrity, loyalty, passion, etc., it first must reside in the leader. This is where it must begin. The absence of these qualities in the leader will produce an absence of them in the organization. From there, the leader sets the tone in words and in actions. Again, who you attract isn’t determined by what you want. It’s determined by who you are.

Leaders Must Defend the Culture

It’s just not enough to point out the values that you say define your culture. You must live it and breathe it, and ultimately, you must defend it. So how does a toxic culture evolve in an organization? It happens when the leader phones it in and believes that because the values and mission statements are written in a dusty policy handbook, the job is done.

Your company culture and workplace must be defined and defended by those in leadership. And this means holding yourself and others accountable for it. Without this safeguard, you are on a slippery slope. As a leader, you must fight for your culture.

The leader’s role in reversing a toxic workplace environment begins with two things:

1) The leader defines the workplace culture. In other words, the type of culture you want is determined by who you are. You can’t expect to have a great workplace culture if you, as the leader, do not possess the character and integrity to create it. You define the culture by who you are.

2) The leader must defend the culture. It’s not enough to define the culture you want; you must defend it. This means everyone in leadership is clear on what it is and everyone sets the example of what it looks like and you hold everyone accountable for it.

As stated already, many CEOs and CFOs acknowledge the benefits of a healthy workplace environment but do not know where to start when it comes to fixing it. Let’s continue with a few next steps that can turn the tide.

Don’t Assume Everyone Knows or Understands the Culture

It would stand to reason that your values and culture are an integral part of your onboarding process. If they’re not, they should be. But that aside, you must build upon them. Your culture and environment are always evolving. At every opportunity, remind your people that they represent the culture and the health of the organization.

Everyone Is Held Accountable

Patrick Lencioni says, “Great teams do not hold back from one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.”

And this must be the guiding philosophy of your organization if you want it to be healthy. If all your people do is bottle up their frustrations and concerns and never speak up, even though that employee is an otherwise ideal team member, they are inadvertently contributing to the toxic culture. Your people must take ownership of the culture they want, and it begins with mutual accountability.

Regularly Employ T.L.C.

The benchmarks of a strong workplace culture that will cause it to thrive are found in three basic ingredients:


The foundation of your workplace culture is trust. When your people trust each other (and you), the sky is the limit in terms of what you can accomplish. Without it, you will always be stuck.


Loyalty to one another – built on trust – is the glue that holds everything together in your organization. Guard and protect this with everything you have.


Nothing will undo a strong workplace culture any faster than a lack of good communication. Your people do not want to be left in the dark. If you can’t properly communicate, then how can your people trust you or be loyal?


Turning a toxic workplace culture around is not easy. But it begins when each person accepts responsibility for their own actions and behaviors. The first person you hold accountable is yourself. From there you can work on building mutual accountability among your colleagues.

Doug Dickerson is a certified Maxwell Leadership Speaker, Trainer, and Coach. He resides with his wife in the beautiful Lowcountry of South Carolina, USA. He and his wife, Alicia, are the owners of The Success Center – a full-service tutoring center for ... (Read More)

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