Who’s Responsible for Toxic Culture?

Colin Ellis
5 min readFeb 14, 2023

‘Who’s responsible for toxic culture?’ It’s one of the questions I get asked the most in my line of work and frustratingly for most, there’s no one simple answer because on some level every single person involved in that culture is responsible. Let me explain.

Culture in its simplest form is ‘the way that things get done around here’. And from an organisation’s or team perspective that not only includes the senior leadership and their direct reports but also every other employee too, regardless of their employment status (permanent, part-time, contract etc.) or location. Everyone has a role to play in making sure that there’s a vibrant culture where everyone wants success for everyone else. This is not a pipe dream, some teams (and organisations) do it consistently well!

Culture is (deliberately) built to deliver a strategy that’s been determined by the senior leaders of an organisation. They will say ‘this is what we want to achieve’ — this can be, for example, a financial target, service level or product delivery — and the time period within which they expect it to happen.

It’s then up to the management team to work with employees to define the culture by which those targets will be achieved. However, managers can’t tell employees what that culture is. They have to work with them to actively define it, so that people feel that they can bring their best, most emotionally intelligent self to their work and are ‘engaged’ in wanting the culture to succeed.

Managers

It’s a manager’s job to not only know how to build a vibrant team culture, but also to ensure that time, money and effort is set aside to do so, every single year.

The manager and their team of direct reports need to be able to motivate individuals and the team alike. They need to create an environment where employees feel comfortable working and want to succeed. An environment that works people hard (but not to the point of burnout), so that they themselves feel like they are developing, just outside their comfort zone.

Merely talking about wanting to create a great culture or high performing team is not enough. They need to have an infectious passion for the culture and its evolution, so as to inspire those around them when things aren’t going well and thus prevent it from turning toxic. They need to take risks and know when to make a decision and when to take a safer route.

They need to communicate with honesty, clarity and respect and trust people to do their jobs. They need to be welcoming and forgiving, but also deal swiftly with poor performance and behaviour so that it doesn’t affect team performance or culture (the so-called ‘tough love’).

When a manager starts to dictate the way things should be done or else treat people unfairly, then this will adversely affect the culture and if this persists then the culture will become toxic. Unless action is taken to change the manager’s behaviour, the culture will break down and the manager can be expected to be moved on (usually to a role like ‘Head of Special Projects’ or similar). Sometimes it’s justified, yet often, if they have not had the right support to develop the team, or lack the skills to be able to do so, it’s not.

Employees

Employees need to ‘show up’ every day with the right intention, energy and mindset. One that is focused on team and not personal performance (managers can help here by setting team not individual goals). Every employee has to do their job and behave to the best of their ability and take responsibility for motivating and communicating with each other throughout the working day to ensure that results are achieved. Every employee needs to recognise when they have to step outside their comfort zone and take a lead. It’s not enough to be passive. There are no passengers in vibrant cultures.

Employees have a responsibility not to talk behind each other’s backs nor seek to undermine the work of others. They need to maintain high levels of trust and do what’s right by the team to ensure that goals and targets are met. They need to prioritise their work, not say yes to everything that crosses their desk and use their time productively.

Unhappy employees negatively affect the culture of the team, so it’s a manager’s responsibility to not only set realistic expectations about work and behavioural requirements, but also to ensure that people are motivated every day to give their best for the team.

Employees that don’t have the right attitude, behaviours or the knowledge or skills to do their job effectively should be performance managed and then — should they not respond appropriately to this — moved on to create room for others that do. This process should be supported by HR/People and Culture to make it as easy as possible for managers to do.

If at any stage the CEO (or senior leader of the team) witnesses the culture begin to degrade, then it’s their job to deal with the team or individual or seek an external review such that action can be taken to correct it.

If the CEO is the source of the toxicity, then the board of directors (or relevant government body) need to deal swiftly with this before their behaviour leads to the organisation becoming a media story, as so many do.

Sometimes a single individual can be the source of a toxic culture and that person has to be dealt with fairly and swiftly, to preserve the culture for everyone else. But make no mistake, there are many people (managers and employees alike) along the way that could and should have stopped this.

Ultimately it’s the senior leadership team who bear full responsibility for a toxic culture and also the response in addressing it.

However, culture is everyone’s responsibility, which is why everyone has a role to play in preventing toxicity arising in the first place. What can you do to ensure that you’re not complicit in a toxic culture?

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Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot www.colindellis.com