A toxic workplace can look like the flu. They’re both unpleasant (sometimes downright nasty) and cause all kinds of physical ailments. People go to great lengths to avoid them and often call in sick. And a toxic culture and the flu are both contagious!

Unlike the flu, however, a toxic culture doesn’t simply run its course. It lingers until everyone who encounters it is contaminated. There are ways to prevent a toxic culture, but what can you do to spot the early warning signs and minimize the spread once it takes hold?

Get a Check-Up.

Here’s a list of toxic culture symptoms that should be part of any organizational check-up:

  • Blurred vision: There’s no clear purpose, and there’s low collaboration and increased competing priorities. Left unchecked, unclear organizational vision leads to decreased staff and leader engagement, poor performance, and missed targets. Left untreated, it eventually impacts your bottom line.
  • Bruised egos: There’s a lack of acknowledgement and recognition, and there’s destructive conflict and unhealthy interdepartmental rivalry. Often an undercurrent of performance, this toxic culture symptom undermines organizational efforts of every size.
  • Bite marks: There’s gossiping, backbiting, in-fighting and an overall lack of professionalism. This symptom, too, loves to lurk below the surface. To determine whether this symptom is present at your office, look at turnover rates and exit interview trends.

Of course, none of these symptoms presents physically, but they are easy to spot, because they manifest psychologically, emotionally and socially and take a tremendous toll on organizational growth and productivity.

“I Feel Fine (Cough Cough).”

In some cultures, particularly in the U.S., we don’t like to admit when we’re sick. We think it makes us look weak or vulnerable. The same holds true in many organizations. It’s not easy to admit that you have a culture problem. It’s precisely because of a toxic culture that owning the problem is so daunting. The risk of conflict, lack of buy-in and scapegoating in a toxic environment are high. Until everyone acknowledges that something’s wrong, however, you cannot address it.

Control the Spread

Whether you have some early warning signs or a full-blown epidemic on your hands, you can take and should take measures to address a toxic culture to prevent it from spreading and further eroding your organization’s mission, vision and values.

Understanding who and what shapes culture is vital. Not surprisingly, it begins with leadership. Leaders need to be on the same page and model the values and behaviors they want the organization to emulate.

Beyond formal leaders, every organization has informal influencers. When it comes to culture, it’s essential to identify these individuals, especially the ones who are undermining efforts to get things back on track. Establish some active listening posts to monitor and observe any messaging that may be feeding the rumor mill or fanning the flames of discontent.

Get Healthy.

Recovering from a toxic culture is not easy, but it is possible. Many organizations of all sizes in all sectors have done so successfully. Like any change effort, it requires a concerted team effort, strong leadership and a clear vision.

Because culture is so complex, it’s a good idea for organizations to map their future state. Be specific. Use pictures! How would departments and individuals interact with one another differently? What would you be able to accomplish in the future that you can’t now? What measurable differences would you see?

Finally, take the time to quantify what your culture problem is costing your organization. What is a healthy culture worth to your business or organization? Given these considerations, what priority should you give your road to recovery?

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