“Toxic company culture” is a modern popular term that has made a lot of noise in recent years.
Every toxic workplace has its unique mix of unpleasant personalities, questionable ethics, and nonsensical regulations. No two narcissistic bosses or rule-obsessed HR departments are alike in their awfulness. But according to some of the most seasoned commentators in the business, beneath this superficial diversity lies a surprising uniformity.
Every toxic company culture is not toxic in its way. They argue that every terrible company culture stems from a handful of fundamental mistakes.
A “toxic” culture isn’t just one you don’t like
Part of the confusion about exactly what makes a culture toxic, according to venture capitalist and blogger Hunter Wolk, is that many of us use the term “toxic” to refer to a culture we don’t personally like.
“I would rather cut off a few toes than work at a place that requires people to wear suits and sit in front of a computer for 12 hours a day, but that doesn’t make all of the investment banking toxic. It just means I’m not a good fit for Goldman Sachs,” he says.
So if a toxic culture isn’t something idiosyncratic and highly individual, how do you determine when a company has a truly harmful or ineffective culture?
The four deadly sins in the workplace according to Adam Grant
In his recent WorkLife podcast, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business professor Adam Grant offers a simple framework that answers this question. According to him, toxic company culture is always associated with a lack of balance. Companies become toxic when they go too far to one of two extremes on the scales of competing values: -relationships vs. results and rules vs. risk.
According to Grant, if you place too much emphasis on one of these values, you will commit the four deadly sins in the workplace:
If all that matters in a business are not upsetting others and avoiding creating conflict, it’s no surprise that getting work done ranks pretty low on the priority list. The result is mediocrity and a culture that lacks accountability. “Even if you’re doing a terrible job, you can still climb the career ladder as long as people like you,” Grant says of this type of toxicity.
At the other end of the relationship-results scale are companies that value human relationships so little that they forsake all human decency in the name of efficiency. Grant (and several studies) argue that this type of toxicity is the deadliest of all workplace sins and leads to the creation of a company culture characterized by disrespect, abuse, unethical decisions, and rude behavior.
Every business must balance the stability that comes from the rules and the benefits that come from the risks. If you are too extreme in your pursuit of the rules you will find yourself in an environment paralyzed by bureaucracy; an environment where creativity and initiative. This is about those companies that ask you to submit a form in triplicate just to use the restroom, and that view even minor changes to the status quo with suspicion and hostility.
On the other side of rules and bureaucracy are anarchy and utter chaos. Everyone can do what they want, and there is no coordination and agreement in the work. After all, people work at cross purposes, and the lessons of taking failed lynxes are never learned.
“Code can be rewritten. Products may be modified, renewed, and replaced. Investors can be bought out. But culture is like super cement that seeps into every gap. This is why categorizing, evaluating, and discussing culture can be very specific,” Wolk wrote on his blog.
Grant’s framework provides a convenient method for doing just this kind of assessment. Whether you’re a job seeker trying to figure out if the culture of the company you’re applying to is toxic, or a leader who wants to make sure people don’t perceive his company’s culture as such, it would be good to take consider these four factors.