Business Bites: Workplace culture

Nick Walsh FBDO, MCMI, MLMinstLM
ABDO head of corporate development

The biggest driver affecting staff retention is a toxic workplace culture

In this month’s Business Bites, we’ll look at workplace culture: what is it and what influences it?

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” 

This famous statement by author and management expert, Peter Drucker, seems to suggest that strategy for business is not important. This is not what is being said at all, rather Drucker is pointing out the huge importance of culture within the workplace and the impact its has on a business’s success.

What is workplace culture?

So, what is workplace culture? Simply put, it is the sum of many factors such as behaviours, shared values and systems that help to describe how you do what you do. In a workplace, the leadership and management influence workplace culture to a huge extent.

A positive workplace culture could be described as a culture that gives priority to the wellbeing of employees and offers support to them, at all levels. It will also have policies in place to encourage empathy, support, respect, and trust. A positive workplace culture can raise morale, which will have the benefits of employee retention through job satisfaction, improved productivity, better team-working through collaboration (and avoidance of silo working), and reduced stress for team members. The opposite could be seen as a toxic culture in the workplace.

Toxic workplace cultures

Analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has found that the leading elements contributing to a toxic workplace culture include:

  • failure to promote diversity, equity and inclusion;
  • workers feeling disrespected; and
  • unethical behaviour.

Results from the MIT study show that compared to the often-assumed employee compensation, the biggest driver affecting staff retention is a toxic workplace culture. In fact, this was shown to be more than 10 times more likely than employee compensation to lead to staff churn. Unfortunately, toxicity seems to be on the rise.

But what is meant by toxic? According to one dictionary definition, toxic means: “poisonous” and/or “causing unpleasant feelings; harmful or malicious”. In the workplace, toxicity can be anything from bullying, harassment, a business engaging in unethical practices, and a business that is dishonest with its employees.

In his book ‘Toxic: A Guide to Rebuilding Respect and Tolerance in a Hostile Workplace’, Clive Lewis describes a toxic workplace as: “…exhibiting low levels of trust, having misaligned organisation systems and incapable line managers who work hard to preserve their status at all costs. Employees are unwilling or fearful to take responsibility for their actions“.

These toxic line managers lack the competence required to fulfil their role. They demonstrate a lack of regard for others’ wellbeing.

Toxicity in the team is not limited to the leadership, however, and a toxic employee will sow discord and division. Their delivery of results can be questionable, and they will attempt to keep their furtive actions against colleagues away from the attention of others, especially the management.

In her Forbes article, ‘Is your workplace dysfunctional? Here are the 5 types of toxic cultures‘, Heidi Lynne Kurter states: “Toxic workplace cultures are rife with hostility, cliques, gossip, mistrust, and selfishness. They’re a breeding ground for dysfunction due to poor communication, power struggles, negativity, and abusive leadership. Due to this, collaboration, productivity, and innovation falter while fear, manipulation, and blame grow“.

Looking at some of these negative areas, what could be the consequences for your business?

  • Low productivity: employees in a toxic workplace often finish their work as quickly as possible to limit interactions with others. They rarely seek to support their colleagues with additional projects
  • Poor production quality: unhappy employees may produce lower quality products which, in turn, reduces the overall quality of your business’s goods or services
  • Increased illness and absenteeism: employees experience mental and physical health effects
  • High staff turnover: employees lose satisfaction with their position and look for work elsewhere
  • Poor reputation: your business develops a reputation for being a toxic work environment, making it a challenge to hire new employees

How to generate a positive workplace culture

So, what actions will help to make a workplace environment less toxic and more positive?

Provide regular and transparent communication

Succeeding in generating the right workplace culture will rely on the quality and regularity of communications with your team. No-one likes to feel ‘out-of-the-loop’. Communication should be in a format that gives team members the chance to contribute, ask questions and get clarification on points. One way to achieve this is to have an easily accessible leadership team in the business. It’s up to you how active or passive this is.

Passive accessibility could be described as the proverbial ‘open-door’ policy where employees can seek you out to ask questions and seek clarification. Active would be best described as the leaders in the business taking time to seek out feedback from employees, and see what they are doing on a day-to-day basis that impacts both their quality of life and the business’s performance. Ask for feedback from your employees at regular intervals. Take ideas and suggestions on how the business could improve its performance, as well as ideas on how to improve business culture and work-life balance.

Provide regular employee recognition

Praise and acknowledge excellent work. Consider highlighting a different employee’s achievements each week or month to ensure everyone on the team feels appreciated for the work they do. You may consider introducing an incentive programme that rewards the top performer each week or month.

Provide development opportunities

Employees should be encouraged to learn new skills. Innovation is important to the future of many businesses as technology disrupts the way they work, increasing the need for new solutions and creative approaches. A positive workplace culture presents employees with ongoing professional development that’s not only relevant to their roles, but the future of the business, too.

Address concerns

When an employee brings their concerns to your attention, do what you can to rectify the situation and ensure the employee feels heard and supported. When employees feel you care about them and are willing to help them with problems, they’re more likely to work productively and stay with the business.

These are just a few examples – but by improving communication and feedback, you will discover elements of culture unique to your business. A toxic workplace culture will create issues for employees’ wellbeing, and your business’s  health and growth. Regularly assess your business’s culture to ensure your employees feel safe and respected at work. Take steps to rectify any elements of toxicity.

Most important of all, ‘walk the talk’. Show your employees how you want them to behave by modelling appropriate behaviour yourself.

Next month, we will look further at how to communicate well within the workplace.