As organizations close out another year, work culture remains a top priority for leaders looking to retain employees and boost productivity.
Based on research from MIT Sloan senior lecturer there are five key attributes of a toxic corporate culture: It is disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive. A toxic culture is a strong driver of disengagement, attrition, employee stress, burnout, and sickness.
But organizations can reverse a toxic culture, Sull wrote earlier this year in MIT Sloan Management Review. This is done through cultural detox, “identifying and addressing toxic subcultures.”
Sull analyzed existing research and learned that the most powerful predictors for identifying a toxic culture are toxic leadership, toxic social norms, and poor work design.
“Leadership consistently emerged as the best predictor of toxic culture,” Sull wrote. “Leaders cannot improve corporate culture unless they are willing to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for toxic behavior.”
He offered four steps leaders can take to begin the process of detoxing their cultures:
- Quantify the benefits of cultural detox to keep it on the top team’s agenda. Be clear about the bottom-line benefits of a healthy work culture, such as lower attrition rates and employee health care costs. “Leaders should address cultural toxicity because it’s the right thing to do,” according to Sull, “but quantifying the benefits can help keep culture detox a priority for top teams that are being pulled in many directions.”
- Publicly report progress to keep the pressure on. Don’t just post a list of core values on the wall. Publicly report progress, or a lack thereof, on values and related goals that embody a healthy work culture. “Transparency and external pressure can help senior leaders maintain focus when it comes to detoxing their culture,” Sull wrote.
- Model the behavior you expect from employees. Employees look to leadership for real-world examples of how to behave with regard to the organization’s core values, according to Sull. “When leaders act consistently with core values, it is one of the most powerful predictors of how positively employees rate their corporate culture.”
- Track progress with honest data. Don’t filter out reports of toxic behavior as they make their way up the leadership chain. That behavior needs to be addressed, not ignored. Monitor job review sites like Glassdoor or Indeed, where former and current employees share candid feedback. “Leaders cannot afford to disregard external employee reviews when trying to assess their corporate culture, warts and all,” Sull wrote.
Explore Sull’s complete list of recommendations for leadership, social norms, and work design in “How to Fix a Toxic Culture.”