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How to fix a toxic work culture from the top down

3 ways to create a psychologically-safe workplace as a leader

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How to prevent a toxic work culture3 key ways to change a toxic work environment Doing nothing to change a toxic work environment is the biggest risk of all

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  • Toxic workplaces are built on a fear of speaking up and the best way to prevent this is to instil a sense of psychological safety at work.
  • Help your team feel psychologically safe about their role and position within the company by setting clear expectations, reasonable demands, and robust support.
  • Encourage leaders and managers to model safe interpersonal risks like setting clear work-life boundaries, asking for criticism, and admitting to mistakes.
  • Help your team build psychological safety with one another with team-building exercises that build trust and openness.

Once you know how to spot the signs of a toxic company culture, you’re on your way to addressing the problem. But being a non-toxic workplace isn’t enough to attract the best talent and keep your team happy and motivated. Companies need to fight to be actively anti-toxic. As a manager, you can help prevent a toxic company culture but it takes a conscious effort from all levels of the business.

How to prevent a toxic work culture

Toxic workplaces are built on a fear of speaking up. The best way to prevent a culture of fear is to instil a deep sense of psychological safety at work. That is, helping people to feel comfortable giving their opinion, taking risks, challenging each other and asking for help. In fact, Google’s Project Aristotle found that a high degree of psychological safety has the biggest impact on team effectiveness – over and above structure, dependability, and impact.

We think there are three key areas in which companies can be actively anti-toxic, banishing fear in their employees and installing psychological safety as the norm.

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3 key ways to change a toxic work environment 

1. Make sure employees feel psychologically safe about the company’s policies, expectations and support

Psychological safety starts with basic good practice when it comes to the structure of work. Clear expectations, reasonable demands, support: all the usual suspects.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) outlines six key areas of work that, if not properly addressed, make us feel psychologically unsafe, stressed out and anxious. They are:

  • Demands – this includes things like workload, work patterns and the working environment.
  • Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
  • Support – the encouragement, recognition, training and resources provided by the company, manager and colleagues.
  • Relationships – this includes promoting understanding and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
  • Role – whether people understand their role clearly, and whether the company ensures that there aren't conflicting or unnecessary roles.
  • Change – how change (large or small, and external or internal) is managed and communicated by senior people in the business and managers.

HSE has a great workbook (PDF) that goes through each of these six areas in turn, with templates for employees and their managers to discuss, as well as a load of practical ideas on how to fight a toxic work culture and improve in each area.

2. Make sure employees feel psychologically safe with leaders and managers

Toxic company culture often filters from the top down, and leaders and managers are the only ones who can prevent that from happening. Instilling psychological safety in your team means you need to model safe interpersonal risk-taking in order for your employees to feel like they can do it too.

When it comes to changing a toxic environment, there are things you can do to demonstrate ‍ safe interpersonal risk-taking to your team. Try setting leaders and managers a challenge to try out one of these new behaviours each week:

👉 Saying 'I don't know' in front of other people

We so rarely hear this during our formative years (from parents or teachers) and it has such a profound impact on employees. It demonstrates openness and rallies against a culture of perfectionism.

👉 Being clear with work-life boundaries

Telling the team they're clocking off after an end-of-day meeting, not emailing on evenings or weekends, and saying when they won't be able to do something on time. All this helps employees to set better boundaries themselves.

👉 Admitting to mistakes and failures

This can be done in a light-hearted or serious way, but the important thing is to be open about when they did something wrong, demonstrating that it's not the end of the world if an employee were to do the same.

👉 Asking for criticism and inviting conflict

Hoping that people will feel comfortable giving feedback or questioning those above them in seniority isn't enough. It's the responsibility of those who are more senior to ask for constructive criticism, logic-checking and debate.

3. Make sure employees feel psychologically safe with other employees

Interestingly, this is where some employees can feel most psychologically unsafe, as toxic competitiveness, office politics, misunderstanding and passive-aggressiveness can easily crop up between peers who work together – especially in a remote or hybrid workplace.

The key to psychological safety between employees is to foster as much honesty and understanding as possible. The more honest we are with each other, the more we understand each other as whole people. And the more we understand each other as whole people, the less likely we are to misinterpret actions, or feel resentful and competitive, or assume the worst.‍

The absolute bible when it comes to encouraging honesty and understanding in teams is a book we mentioned earlier on in this post, 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team' by Patrick Lenconi. Although the title makes it sound like a slightly dry management textbook, it's written as a fable – the story of a fictional company and how its team members interact – so it's actually very readable. It has dramatically changed the way in which we interact with each other at Spill, and we now even give the book to new joiners as part of their onboarding pack.

Here are two exercises that the book suggests for building team trust and openness, and a third (taken from Stanford's that we've also found to be really effective at building interpersonal understanding:

👪 Personal histories exercise

(~20 minutes per person)

Even in close-knit teams, we can still be surprised by how little we know about our colleagues. This is a relatively low-risk exercise, and questions don't need to be overly personal: number of siblings, what life was like growing up, experience at school, first job, worst job, and so on. Just by describing these relatively innocuous attributes and experiences it helps team members to see one another as human beings with life stories and interesting backgrounds. Ask each person to speak for around 10 minutes, with 10 minutes for questions. Often the questions are the most interesting part.

‍💪 Strengths and weaknesses exercise

(~15 minutes per person)

Best done in smaller teams (less than 10 people), rather than bigger departments. Take some silent time for team members to write down the single greatest contribution that each other person makes to the team, and the one area that person must either improve or eliminate for the good of the team. Everyone then speaks through their response, focusing on one person at a time. Ask the person hearing their responses to reflect on how they feel about it. The aim is for it to be at times uncomfortable, but never personal.

✍️ 'Life graph' drawing exercise

(30 minutes in pairs, then 10 minutes for each pair to present back to the group)

Employees are put into pairs and go off for 30 minutes with the task of spending 15 minutes each talking about their life, from birth up until now. While one person is talking, the other listens intently and draws out the highs and lows of that person's life as they hear them (asking clarifying questions where necessary). When presenting back to the group, each person shows and talks through the other person's graph — and then at the end the person hearing their own graph is asked how it felt to hear that.

‍One final thing that hugely helps change a toxic company culture is having a feeling of unconditional positive regard from fellow teammates. When we don't just feel accepted because of how we've performed recently, but because of who we are fundamentally as people, it's so much easier to go out on a limb and be honest, or start conflict, or invite criticism. We feel safe enough to take the risk. 

One way to build unconditional positive regard is with a steady stream of unconditional praise. That means the "you're a thoughtful and funny person" kind of praise, not the "you worked really hard last week to get that project over the line" kind of praise. 

Banish the risk of a toxic culture with Spill's weekly mental wellbeing check for teams: spot warning signs early and encourage people to open up and share.

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Doing nothing to change a toxic work environment is the biggest risk of all

A strong company culture is a double-edged sword. If it's paired with an entrenched feeling of psychological safety, then it can be one of the organisation's most valuable assets. But left unchecked, it risks creating feelings of fear among employees and ultimately morphing into a toxic cult-like environment, like BrewDog

‍By measuring psychological safety regularly, and by implementing active processes and habits to hardwire it into the machinery of the company, you can not only change a toxic work culture, but keep it healthy too.

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Make your company culture psychologically safe by regularly surveying your team and giving support to those in need.

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