7 Signs of a Toxic Staff Culture


Culture wins. It’s the driver of organizational health, and ultimately, growth. So when your culture is toxic, it can harm relationships, tarnish your organization, and prevent organizational growth.

Over the years, there have been numerous examples of high-profile organizations crumbling or confronting serious problems because of toxic cultures.

Nike. Amazon. Zenefits. Even some Christian organizations could be added to the list.

All have, at some point in time, had to address concerns over internal culture. But they’re all still around – and thriving – because they took action when needed.

So, when you see any of these 7 signs, it’s time to take action to right the ship – it’s not too late. If you confront these problems head-on, you can save your culture – and in the long run, the health of your organization.

1. The Absence of Purpose

Purpose powers people. And a lack of purpose can cripple an organization. If you’re more concerned about your bottom line than the reason you exist in the first place, that’s a significant red flag.

Start with the ‘Why?’ Why do you exist? What is your greater purpose? What is your connection to the world beyond your product, service, or ministry?

When the purpose is clear, so is organizational alignment.

We all crave meaning in our lives, and as psychologist Victor Frankl notes, that can come through our work.

Prioritize clarity of purpose and your organization will have a foundation on which to build for years to come.

2. Distrust in Senior Leadership

People will abandon ship if they don’t trust the captain. What kind of leaders are at the top of your organization? Do they take time to interact with staff at all levels? Are they open to feedback and change in the interest of constant improvement?

Leaders have to be completely invested in the vision of the organization. And they have to earn the trust of their employees to make that vision a reality. That trust is built when employees see integrity, authenticity, clarity, and care from their leadership. When there’s a lack of trust, people hide ideas, are afraid to take risks, and tend to self-preserve.

Leaders build trust by modeling, not by having expectations they’ll never live out themselves.

Our CEO, William Vanderbloemen, writes about the importance of leading by example in his book, Culture Wins: The Roadmap to an Irresistible Workplace: “The more the leader lives out the culture, the more employees will follow suit. If the leader embodies, pushes, and champions culture, participates with the employees, and is visible and accessible, the culture will thrive” (71).

It’s a red flag if leadership team members are invisible to the staff, are inconsistent and unclear communicators, and fail to model the company vision and culture.

Build trust, and you’ll simultaneously be building a healthier culture.

3. Low Morale

When morale is low, so is productivity. When employees don’t receive enough encouragement or the culture is one of negativity, they may face burnout or even depression.

Work can be emotionally draining. And if morale is low, employees may begin submitting their resumes elsewhere.

Set the tone for morale at the top. If your leadership focuses only on the negatives within your organization, that filters down.
Celebrate the wins as a team. Address the setbacks, then quickly move on.

An organization is only as good as its team. If the team morale is low, it will be reflected in your product and organization as a whole.

4. A Disengaged Staff

When a culture is toxic, employees are present in body only. They won’t contribute new ideas. They won’t build relationships at work. And they’ll be disconnected from the company vision.

Intentionally create opportunities for staff to engage with one another and build relationships beyond work.

5. A Lack of Ownership

Blame shifting is a major red flag within a toxic culture. When individuals avoid responsibility for project outcomes, things get messy.
Does your organization have tangible goals to hold employees accountable? Do individuals eagerly step up to take on new projects or shirk responsibilities?

Ownership is indicative of the pride one takes in work.

Are employees all talk, with no walk? Are conversations and attitudes different behind closed doors?

If there are inconsistencies, it’s a sign of trouble.

6. Unclear Expectations

Another sign of a sick culture is when people don’t know what’s expected of them. Or worse, there’s no accountability when people don’t meet expectations. Your expectations must be clear and embraced. It’s the leader’s job to make absolutely certain that everyone is on the same page.

If you asked an employee to write out his or her job description, would it match your expectations for the role? It’s an exercise that is worth your time to ensure you’re aligned and have set clear expectations.

7. A Fixed Mindset

When it comes to being successful, does your organization believe that people have a certain amount of talent, and they really can’t do much to change it and grow? Are employees discouraged from trying new things and pushing boundaries? Are certain employees neglected because they are not ‘stars’ or ‘standouts?’ And is professional development an afterthought within your organization?

All of these are indicative of a fixed mindset, a red flag for unhealthy organizational cultures.

When an organization has a fixed mindset, employees may find themselves paralyzed by fear and operate in constant worry and stress, worried about leaving their comfort zones. If they fall short, they’ll be labeled a failure and risk their job security.

In contrast, healthy organizations encourage employees to take calculated risks that push them outside of their comfort zones. There is organizational recognition that individuals have the capacity to grow and develop. ‘Yet’ is the keyword that emphasizes the potential for growth. An individual may not have a necessary skill…yet.

We often hear the metaphor about staff as just ‘cogs in the wheel,’ implying their necessary but unimportant contribution to a team or organization.

If this is how you view some of your staff, change that mindset as soon as possible.

If you see the potential in your staff  – regardless of position – and see staff as more than cogs in a wheel, you’ll be taking a major step toward fostering a growth mindset culture.


If you’re here and one of these signs is prevalent in your culture, don’t despair. If you’re truly objective, you can identify areas that need to be addressed. It’s not too late to right the ship and affect a reversal of culture – but be sure that you start that change now.


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