Changing Toxic Organizational Culture

Changing Toxic Organizational Culture

13.6 min read

Nikki Walker

“To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace.” – Doug Conant

The wave of globalization in various aspects of business has created a need for global leaders with the ability to create agile, change-ready environments in the business world.  Strategic leaders are to be competent and knowledgeable to identify avenues of change that will foster a competitive advantage in their spheres of influence.  Strategic leaders can influence decisions that affect the growth or demise of companies, organizations, or nations. One effective trend is influencing and changing organizational culture in global business environments.

As organizations move from domestic environments to global environments, new, crucial skills emerge in the marketplace.  The skill of changing toxic organizational culture places a demand on global leaders to create and maintain organizations effectively for business success. Influencing, blueprinting, and implementing strategies that change an organization’s toxic culture is an important skill set for global leaders to possess, in order to successfully manage the daily activities of global organizations.

Organizational Culture Defined

“The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything.” – Louis Gerstner

According to Smircich (1983), organizational culture is the set of meaning that give an organization its own ethos, or distinctive character, which is expressed in patterns of belief, activity, language and other symbolic forms through which organization members both create and sustain their view of the world and image of themselves in the world. [1] In addition, culture is shaped by values and beliefs that affect the way people work together organizationally. In today’s organizations, toxic culture can undermine the movement of an entire organization. The need to create a blueprint for change can be a complex undertaking. As Schein (2010) points out, when leaders try to change the behavior of followers, resistance to change can surface. [2] In addition, departments can be involved in turf wars and communication problems/misunderstanding can pollute the organization.

The culture and values of an organization is a life driving force that influences the way organizations function along with how the people in the organization behave. Organizational culture can be likened to the bloodstream.  When the bloodstream is cleansed, oxygen is resident.  On the other hand, a dirty bloodstream symbolizes an abundance of waste or carbon dioxide.  The same holds true for organizational culture.  An organizational culture can either be fluid with movement that produces success and productivity or have a toxicity level that promotes dysfunction in the organization. Transforming a toxic organizational culture requires leaders to assess and evaluate the toxicity of the culture that is already in existence.

In assessing and evaluating the toxicity of an organization’s culture, leaders must be change agents that shift their cultural lenses to observe, discern, detect, and identify ways in which an organization’s culture can be aligned and changed.  In observing and discerning the tangible and intangible cultural elements imbedded in toxic cultures, leaders can implement a blueprint with strategies for change needed to enhance organizational performance.

The Three Levels of Culture

“If you have been trying to make changes in how your organization works, you need to find out how the existing culture aids or hinders you.” – Edgar Schein

Toxic organizational culture must be analyzed at several different levels.  Schein (2010) explains that the levels range from the very tangible overt manifestations that can be seen and felt to the deeply embedded, unconscious, basic assumptions that define the very essence of culture [3]. Understanding the dimensions of culture is essential for leaders to lead the changing of toxic culture. In addition, when blueprinting change strategies for toxic cultures, leaders must entertain the following questions to build strategy:

  • How does the organization view its values in light of the toxicity of the culture?
  • What are areas of importance within the organization culturally?
  • What is the guiding force(s) of the toxicity?

Leaders can obtain answers to those questions by gauging the three levels of culture. Much like a flower garden, there are times to evaluate and prune the root systems of various plants to encourage beautiful plants and flowers. That said, it is important to note that a toxic culture needs pruning of their values to bring cohesion. Similarly, the pruning of a toxic culture will improve leadership expectations and increase organizational synergy and growth.  Hultman and Gellerman (2002) assert that values must be largely shared in order for an organization to forge a direction leading to success. [4] The three major dimensions of cultural analysis are:

  • Artifacts
  • Espoused Beliefs
  • Basic Underlying Assumptions


Artifacts are known as the surface level of an organization’s culture because they are easily recognizable.  They are visible organizational structures and processes such as the visible products, architecture, language, technology, style, emotional displays, published values, and rituals and ceremonies. [5] This translates into what employees wear to work, how furniture and offices are arranged, and how employees work and treat one another.

Espoused Beliefs

Espoused beliefs are the values, ideals, goals, strategies and philosophies that impact the deeper levels of organizational culture.  An example of this would be an organization that is structured upon the foundational values of integrity, trust, commitment, and dedication to be corporately responsible for the environment. [6]

Basic Underlying Assumptions

Schein (2010) notes that basic underlying assumptions are the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that influence how cultural situations are handled. [7] An example of this would be the rules and policies that are developed within the organizational culture.

These cultural levels all build upon each other as drivers of success in an organization. Understanding the guiding forces of these three cultural levels enables leaders to assess the climate of the organization, as well as the macro and micro cultures operating within the organization.  When leaders embark on building their organizational blueprints, understanding all cultural dynamics of their organization enables them to recognize the difference between positive and toxic culture.  How well a leader can discern either culture will help them get rid of toxicity to build a healthier culture and organization.  Leaders should consider these questions when assessing the toxicity of their organizational cultures:

  • What changes can be made to shift the organization back on track to achieve its vision?
  • What changes can be made organizationally to achieve higher output of productivity and morale?
  • How can I shift the culture to create a synergistic culture that fosters change in all areas of the organization?

Toxic Culture – Signs and Symptoms to Consider

“Change almost never fails because it’s too early.  It almost always fails because it’s too late.” – Seth Godin

A toxic culture can be lethal to an organization, its employees, and its overall success in the global marketplace.  When toxic organizational culture trumps positive organizational culture, leaders should perform an intervention to detox their organizations to stop the downward spiraling effects on culture and values.  Toxic culture is an organizational ‘virus’ that can spread throughout the organization, undermining its reputation and success.  Leaders must function as organizational physicians to detect the signs and symptoms of viruses that are toxic to organizational atmospheres.  Signs and symptoms of disruptive toxic behaviors take the form of impropriety, interpersonal mistreatment, and disruptive behavior. [8] Other signs and symptoms are gossip, rumors, cliquish behavior, double standards for leadership, and organizational inconsistencies.

These toxic behaviors can also spread as a virus in the form of yelling or raising of one’s voice, abusive language, berating in front of peers, condescension, insults, passive hostility, shaming, turf wars, silos, and team sabotage. [9] These toxic viruses stunt growth and organizational momentum toward organizational goals.

“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.”– Peter Drucker

As the toxic viruses move to paralyze the organizational culture, behavior of toxic employees and other leaders can begin to affect the organization.  It is paramount for organizational change to be addressed before cultural viruses and diseases become even more cancerous to the organization. Signs and symptoms of toxic employees and leaders can affect culture by damaging morale, diverting people’s energy from productive work, damaging cooperation and knowledge sharing, impairing hiring and retention of the best people, and making poor business decisions. [10]

In addition, the behavior of toxic employees and leaders can be destructive to a company’s social capital, trust, and relationships within an organization that enable people to work together effectively. [11] Leaders must be cognizant of these changes that decrease organization vulnerability that can flatline the organization. When these behaviors go unchecked, these organization issues erode the culture.

Toxic cultures in organizations create dissonance that calls for leaders to step in with strategies of change as prescriptions to eradicate the viruses for positive organizational culture. Leaders must be well-versed in understanding cultural nuances in their organizations that create viruses that inherently pull down the culture of organizations. Leaders, operating as defibrillators, can give a jolt to the culture of their organizations, sustaining their life for cultural changes that will produce high performance in the global marketplace.

It’s in Your Court – Changing Toxic Organizational Culture into a Positive Culture

“Companies often underestimate the role that managers and staff play in transformation efforts. By communicating with them too late or inconsistently, senior executives end up alienating the people who are most affected by the changes.”  

–       Harold Sirkin, Perry Keenan, and Alan Jackson

In today’s organizations, there is a need for leaders that lead and collaborate with others to change toxic cultures into positive organizational culture. Bawany (2014) notes that the heart of the leadership challenge for today’s leaders is learning how to lead in cultural situations of toxicity, volatility and uncertainty in globalized environments. [12] Leadership is an art and a science that continually evolves, changes form, and requires creativity.

Leadership is all about leaders possessing the ability to culturally shift organizations, while impacting and influencing others to engage them towards achieving results for cultural change and organizational success. [13] Once cultural toxicity is understood and detected by leaders, it is then time for leaders to create cultural changes that create a new beginning organizationally.  Edward Lawler (2006) notes that leaders should not think of change as aberration anymore, but rather think of change as a dynamic stability where leaders can anticipate and be ready for change. [14] That said, leaders as change agents, must in position to plan, blueprint, and implement change strategies to reduce toxicity levels for implementation of positive culture.

For starters, one key to help dissipate toxicity in cultures is for leaders to communicate their plans of change to their employees.  This will reduce alienation and encourage engagement and buy-in from employees as leaders work to shift the toxicity levels to normal levels for positive organizational culture. Employees need to see clear advantages for both the company and themselves and how their contributions are a valued part of the overall initiative. [15] At the same time, leaders must model the desired cultural beliefs, practices, customs, and behaviors that support the culture change for employees to follow.

Leaders must be courageous to make change and innovation of culture possible.  Courage is vital to challenge conventional thinking and envision new possibilities. [16] When leaders act courageous, it creates courageousness in their followers.  Toxicity is exchanged with a more positive cultural flow when leaders lead courageously.  In a positive organizational culture, courageous leaders foster an environment where people can collaborate in the decision-making process to strategically shift culture of the organization as it becomes more nimble, entrepreneurial, and aligned with positive values. [17]

Another key for leaders to culturally shift their organizations’ culture from toxicity to positivity is to inspire and unite their followers. Strategic leaders have a great responsibility to create and maintain an organizational culture that creates a spirit of community. According to Kouzes & Posner (2012), inspiring leaders understand that promoting a culture of community fuels the sense of unity essential for retaining and motivating today’s workforce. [18] The process of creating community helps leaders to ensure that their followers feel that they belong to something greater than themselves, while working together toward a common cause. [19] In addition to building strong community to foster a desired culture, toxicity dissipates because leaders develop collaborative goals and cooperative relationship with their followers. [20] The leader/follower relationship creates an atmosphere of collaboration, where everyone involved wins.

As cultural change is implemented, challenges can arise that act as barriers to the cultural shift. To achieve a successful cultural shift, along with organizational success, challenge is the opportunity for greatness, innovation, and movement that turns a toxic culture into a positive culture for growth. [21] Russell (2014) explains that leaders challenge processes in organizations by generating new ideas to fuel growth. [22] Strategic leaders can increase innovation, effectiveness, and efficiency for new cultural ideas by creating a climate that embraces challenges.

It takes time for change to implemented, as well as encountering mistakes when implementing change. Leaders that are not moved by challenges teach their followers to be resilient as change is implemented from one culture to another.

Lastly, to ward against future toxicity, an area of opportunity for leaders is utilizing strategic foresight to forecast futuristic cultural moves. Leaders should be strategic foresight thought leaders that scan horizons for future cultural moves that can either be positive or negative to organizational culture.  Leaders that spot futuristic strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats to future cultural moves can be leveraged and accessed to build relevant future cultural moves that can be implementation for growth. 


Today’s organizations need to be agile, change-ready environments in the global economy. Healthy organizational cultures are essential to cultivate these type of organizations. In order for leaders to plan, blueprint, and implement successful cultural shifts, they must understand the dynamics of culture. When leaders seek to shift toxic cultures, they must understand the cultural levels of artifacts, espoused beliefs, and shared assumptions to successfully build positive organizational cultures. Once cultural dynamics are understood, leaders can recognize and gauge the signs and symptoms of toxic culture. It is critical for leaders to support cultural change by leading by example to model cultural values in their organizations. Leaders can work diligently and effectively to shift organizational cultures. It is then that leaders can provide solutions for positive cultures that produce organizational culture that breed success.

About the Author

Nikki Walker is a thought leader, strategist, and organizational change agent. She earned a BA in Business/Accounting from Virginia Wesleyan and an MBA from Strayer University. She provides coaching, consulting, and instruction to businesses and ministries in areas of leadership and organizational development. In addition, she is currently pursuing a doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Regent University.


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