Decoding the Toxins in Progressive Organisation Culture

Decoding the Toxins in Progressive Organisation Culture

We wish building company culture could have been a cakewalk, but if the truth is told, it’s not! It’s not as hunky-dory as it seems to be always. When a company culture is damaged, it can put your business, as well as your workforce, in jeopardy. Toxic company culture can have a huge effect on productivity and how employees feel at work. The article explores some of the elements of the toxic work culture, which both leaders and employees should look out for and avoid.

“Why do company cultures fail?” To be honest, there is no definite answer to this question since company culture is one of the hardest things to define and measure. What works for one company might not work for another, hence there’s no single answer for its failure—company culture is not a one-size-fits-all deal! However, we do know that most culture failures stem from deep inside the company; from its values—most of the CXOs are not able to link their business plans directly or indirectly to people & culture manifestos as religiously as they would do for the business landscape planning. We talk about every small thing impacting the organisation culture day in and day out, but somehow we miss out on joining the dots, capturing the right themes, and blending those ingredients for building a more agile and sustainable company culture.

There are a number of factors that can kill a culture, I call them “toxins” which can shake the very foundation of any organisation. These toxins can often result in high turnover rates, decreased productivity, low motivation, poor employee engagement, etc. Many organisations might look at these problems and believe that the issue is their workforce quality. However, they often fail to understand that such problems, as well as other operational issues, are often reflective of bad company culture.

Building the right culture is like a culinary art. Sounds interesting, right? Indeed! It’s about first deciding what to cook, followed by what ingredients you need (some will be handy and some you will have to prepare), and finally, the time & effort taken to stir and blend all the ingredients to prepare the tastiest possible delicacy. It is the same with your organisation’s culture. A rigid three or five-step process will work just fine if you want a cookie-cutter culture. But in order to stand out, you’ll have to build a culture that is one-of-a-kind work art—like a chef’s signature dish. So, write your culture manifesto more precisely, accurately, and cohesively. There are many “toxins” or wrong additions that can really spoil what you wish to build.

Toxin #1: Biases: Unseen and Unheard

They talk volumes about how one person or set of individuals function in an organisation. “That team manager uses this process and I feel it’s good, the other two team managers are also using it.”Relatable? How often do we just not see the line of thought and start doing things objectively or just by hearsay? This classic example of bandwagon bias is also linked to the curse of knowledge—just believing that I know it and all others should also know it. Furthermore, do you sense leaders in the organisation favouring things that confirm and support their existing beliefs? Well! You have identified some of the toxins that can negatively impact the decision-making process. Reason? It flows across. This also must be thought on the lines of how conventional organisation culture is being amalgamated with modern nuances. For example: is the culture too hierarchical? Too open or too closed? Let’s accept that we all have some kind of biases, however being self-aware of these biases and whether you let them take dominance in certain situations or not, is the differentiator.

Toxin #2: Organisations Within an Organisation

Inconsistencies in observing value systems in an organisation is yet another “toxin” that one must divert their attention to. If any such activity is done in an organisation, this gives a clear view to all on how both value adaptation and value adoption are on the edge of getting miserably failed. Leadership styles change from table to table and person to person and they highlight the individual capacity of leaders to demonstrate how they drive people and performance together. But adopting company values according to their whims and fancies is something which would never let them build great teams. Such deep irregularities in the company values at every stage would flip the talent landscape drastically causing it to break apart. Let us not allow anyone to play, hijack, or misuse organisational values.

One needs to have a high level of accountability and transparency to ensure that the values are not treated as weapons to distastefully treat others without understanding their implications and impacts.

Toxin #3: Follow-ups in Silos

The word “Silo” is not something that we have not heard of. This business contextual term, if taking a forefront in any organisation, gives alarming signs about what and how things will trickle down from the top. Despite creating unification of goals and objectives, this still fails because the mentality needs attention and not the strategy. It would not be too correct to say that it always reflects the CXOs functionality, but sometimes it’s more to do

with the layers between the top and the frontline workforce. Each company tries to foster a cohesive environment wherein cross-functional communications are encouraged boldly. But the reality lies in what actually happens. Lack of information flow that impacts the overall business, conflicted leadership, not-being nice to other departments, preconceived notions, and lack of basic clarity on bringing efficacies on shared goals are a few trends that define this mentality.

Let us not allow anyone to play, hijack, or misuse organisational values. One needs to have a high level of accountability and transparency to ensure that the values are not treated as weapons to distastefully treat others without understanding their implications and impacts.

Do you get to know information from other departments or people on some of the key changes, updates, and related things in the business; when such information should have been shared with you by your direct/ indirect manager(s)? This is a bigger sign than anything on how certain people function in an organisation. How do you expect the existing talent to be the torchbearers of the company culture when critical information is not being shared with those who must know? Knowingly or unknowingly promoting such behaviours is purely cynical. Each department plays a vital role in giving the desired shape to the business.

Toxin #4: Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

There’s one problem that you see in the business and you observe that almost everyone is trying to solve it directionlessly without considering the subject matter. Now, this sounds highly interesting that each and everyone is contributing to bring about a change and solve the given problem. But here’s where the flip side lies – how about the actual owner of the problem? Have we heard them enough? Have we understood the root-cause from their perspective? This kind of classic culture-killer behaviour is often observed when people from one function think they know about other functions as well – no question on the competence here! It’s more to do with the collaboration instead of projecting that you know more. I am sure most of us would have witnessed something of this sort and must have thought, where has the logic gone? Why not empower the process or problem- owner to choose whom they want to collaborate with to solve challenges? Why not give them the appropriate resources/equipment to fix? Why always think that every problem in an organisation is a people’s problem, either created by people or to be addressed/solved by people?

This kind of situation where too many people are working on one issue without seeing the nitty-gritty leads to hidden cultural defiance and starts a wave of such other aspects when people would start venturing into others’ tasks without knowing the appropriate processes, alignment, and agreement with the main process- owners. It creates anxieties and crises among a certain set of groups and individuals that pushes them to question the culture they are a part of. Organisational culture does bring people together to brainstorm, discuss, talk, and share some best solutions possible, however, we must also look at the quantum of intent that they bring in and how choosing the right set collaboratively changes the game for everyone. Not to forget the process and mechanisms used to define a problem and why “business ecosystems” and “business problems” must have some synergies.

Toxin #5: If It’s Just about Tattletales

It’s said that we all have some tales and stories to share. We meet different sets of individuals who have so many experiences to share from which we can learn and grow. It’s quite interesting to see if your organisation has many storytellers. Monitoring the stories and the intent to bring them into the spotlight is something one must deeply think about. Some uncontrollable stories tend to take the shape of grapevines and it can become difficult to stop them overnight from growing. The wargames increase and deviate people from their actual goals & objectives.

Does the leadership in your organisation also have tendencies to flow with certain gossips?

Aha! Time for you to sniff this stagnancy. Believe it or not, this one aspect has led organisations to fail to build a progressive, people-oriented, and sustainable culture. This literally kills the idea of open communication, listening to understand, and synchronizing the business and performance harmonies. More to do with the “eyes and ears” of certain CXOs, if someone blindly gets anchored to such flow of gossip and unvalidated talks; get ready to be a part of the disrupted disturbance. There are things we can control and there are things we cannot. It’s good to have some influencers at the workplace to keep letting you know what happens around, but why to just blindly follow and leave a large room for speculation within the entire organisation?


In the end, it’s just not about having the right set of data, but also the vibes in the organisation which can help you in building or rebuilding the organisation’s culture. Culture is about sharing the same wavelengths, discarding toxins collaboratively, and even realigning the people in certain places which would not only make your organisation a great place to work but also the most loved place to work which has zero space for negative practices.

Sukhpreet Swaran Sandhu is a people advocate and culture evangelist who focuses on doing conventional things unconventionally. He currently heads Human Resources for Spinny wherein he is responsible to drive the organisational growth from zero to one focusing on getting the right set of talent in the system and managing them with agile approaches. He comes over 12 years of progressive experience in the field of human resources. He was also listed by the Business World as one of the Top 100 professionals 40under40 in 2018. In his previous stints, he worked with Denave where he led Global Talent and HR Strategy, Tolexo and Jabong wherein he set-up things from the scratch paying high amounts of inclination cultural assimilation & people capability building. His keen areas of interest include building most-loved workplaces, leadership development, talent management, and culture.


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