Toxic Tension Can Infect Your Culture: Don’t Let It Fester

Have you ever walked into a room full of people and instantly knew there was something uncomfortable? A tension in the air?

In a January 2022 MIT Sloan article, a study that included hundreds of companies across many industries indicated that a toxic culture was the number one driver of The Great Resignation. Toxic culture was 10 times more likely to be why an employee left when compared to compensation — which was 3 to 5 times higher than other predictors such as job insecurity or their organisation’s poor response to Covid-19.

I have definitely experienced a toxic culture in my career. Many times. In fact, I was told during an interview process that I would be managing a ‘broken’ team and that I would need to fix them or fire them. In that case, the toxic situation had indeed festered. But what I realized was that, as a new manager, I had an advantage: they might have a glimmer of hope that things could change for the better.

So it became my top priority – to feed that spark of hope. To genuinely listen to their issues and, where possible, resolve one of their concerns. Just one less thing on their list of ‘what I hate about work’, can encourage a spark to grow into a wee flame.

Sustaining credibility and trust in normal circumstances can be a challenge, but as a manager in a toxic team situation, it can be nearly impossible. So tackle one issue at a time rather than trying to make everything perfect for everyone all at once.  And let them know if you hit a roadblock. Invite them to be creative with a solution.  Celebrate the wins. Replace tension with laughter. Once they get some separation from the situation and can refocus – while you are acknowledging their efforts and achievements –  the tension will start to dissipate.

Sure, I know I made that sound easy. And I know it’s not.  It takes a lot of time. Engaging each team member will progress at a different pace, and someone’s mistrust may be too far along to be turned around. Managing a toxic environment requires tenacity, resilience, and emotional intelligence. You will need to be both energetic and calm, consistent and compassionate.

In the CIHC module “Transcending Toxic Behavior in the Workplace”, I recommend using process as a guide — a process that allows you and your team to stay objective. It helps you to not overreact or let emotions take over. It acknowledges that complex situations are not going to get resolved overnight.

But the rewards are worth it!  A focused and productive team. People who like to come to work. People who know their efforts were appreciated. People with a fire in their bellies.

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Article written by:

Laura's marketing leadership career has spanned several industries in Canada and the USA. She earned her DBA while working full-time. She's a lifelong learner whose business passions include emotional intelligence, leadership and consumer behaviour.