The Antidote to a Toxic Culture Is a Culture of Trust -- Here's How to Build One
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Is your company culture killing your bottom line? A recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 20 percent of Americans have left a job in the past five years due to a “toxic workplace culture.” These losses have cost those companies more than $223 billion.
If a toxic culture can be that costly, then it should be a priority for your management team. It’s up to leadership to make the change, as 76 percent of workers in the same survey said their managers are primarily responsible for culture. If your workplace is taking on toxic qualities, it’s probably because people feel that the leaders don’t keep their word, no one is authentic or there is a major value misalignment between management and workers.
No workplace is perfect. No matter how many beanbag chairs you have or how many games of ping-pong employees play, you’ll have some problems. But the biggest issues can usually be solved by getting involved early and often.
Build a foundation of trust and communication
The faster and more consistent you can be in intentionally building a positive company culture, the better. Culture forms quickly, and if you’re not proactive, it can easily become toxic before you realize it. It’s much harder to change a toxic culture than to shape it well from the outset.
Setting a healthy culture from the beginning will help you shape the values of the organization and attract people who share those values. If you don’t clearly articulate those values early on, then you can’t blame employees when their behavior doesn’t fit.
To build a different culture, you have to start by jumping in the trenches with your employees. Breakdowns in communication are often at the heart of toxic cultures, and they usually stem from a lack of trust because employees feel distant from their managers. Ultimately, trust and camaraderie come from working together to solve problems.
Employees want to see that you understand their points of view and empathize with their concerns. I put this into practice with one of my tech leads recently when he was worried he would have to delete a lot of data to solve a server problem. Rather than instruct him from a distance, I worked on the problem with him and showed him how to fix it without deleting any data. It was a chance to share my knowledge and establish trust between both of us.
Building a culture of trust — the antidote to a toxic culture — doesn’t mean you have to do everything you’ve hired your team to do. But you do have to share in the problem-solving with them from time to time.
Live your values
Working closely with your employees to solve problems is only one step in the right direction. Here are five ways to instill trust even deeper in your organization:
1. Aim for open and honest communication
The way to avoid communication breakdowns is to make sure there is a constant, open give-and-take of information and feedback between you and your employees. This isn’t just about you sharing company information and KPIs with your team; it’s about a dialogue.
Active listening is a key skill for every leader to develop. Ask your employees what challenges they are facing, how their jobs are going and what you can do to help them succeed. And show that you’re listening by asking clarifying questions and acting on what you learn.
2. Set values from the beginning
On top of clearly stating your values early in the life of your company, you need to carefully communicate them from the start of each employee’s tenure. If you don’t instill them in your team members, your values will become mere slogans instead of shaping your organizational identity.
An analysis and follow-up study by finance professors Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales found that organizations that truly put their values into practice were more productive, profitable and able to attract better talent. The only way for a company to embody its values is for its employees to internalize and act on them, and that process starts as early as the interview.
3. Emphasize attitude over skills
All too often, the hiring process is designed to uncover only prospective employees’ skills and experience. What’s left out? Learning their attitudes. A study by Leadership IQ revealed that 46 percent of new hires miss the mark within their first 18 months. Of those who don’t work out, 89 percent failed because of their attitudes, not their skills. They weren’t coachable, they were unmotivated or had a temperament that caused conflict.
If that many employee issues come down to attitude, then you have to probe for the right qualities in this area before you hire — and make them a part of your performance reviews.
4. Lead by example
Nothing erodes trust more quickly than a hypocritical leader. Your employees will quickly tune you out if they get a sense you don’t actually do anything that you’re asking them to do. This duplicity has been the downfall of many leaders, most recently Adam Neumann at WeWork, whose toxic culture included sexual misconduct and discrimination.
Go beyond getting in the trenches and act with integrity in everything, whether in how you treat employees or how you demonstrate your commitment to the values and ethics your company espouses. Remember, culture flows from a company’s leaders.
5. Stay accountable
It’s difficult to honestly assess your own company culture when so much of it flows from your personality. You need someone (within the organization, if possible) to check in with team members to evaluate the state of communication and the level of morale.
A good accountability partner should be unbiased, so that person can’t be a direct report. You need someone who is not afraid to honestly tell you what’s happening within the organization.
Building a healthy company culture isn’t easy, and it will cost you time, effort and money. But the alternatives — high turnover, low morale and possibly worse — are much more costly. If you’re serious about your bottom line, then make your company culture a top priority.