Nicholas Edwards, a freelance writer and editor recently published a thoughtful and interesting article “10 Signs Your Company Culture Is Turning Toxic” on the People First website ( These ten signs will be familiar to most people who read our Bulletin on a regular basis and it will come as no surprise to them that the remedies to avoiding them are rooted to the four enablers of employee engagement identified by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke ten years ago. The fact that organisations are still not recognising that these solutions are available and proven suggests that there is still a gap between theory and effective action.  

As Edwards states, “company culture is a tricky thing to get right - you might have a fantastic mission statement and the most-inspirational core values, but unless your people are living and breathing these at every level of the organisation, they don’t mean much.” He adds, “the success of company culture is not something you can easily quantify – unlike turnover or profit, there’s no clear-cut way of measuring how healthy, or unhealthy, your culture is.”

High turnover rates are a clear sign that something is going wrong even when research has shown that younger employees do not expect (or desire) to be in the same job for their entire working life. The old adage that people leave their managers not the organisation may be out of date and can be linked directly to what we often describe as poor communication of the strategic narrative. It is, however, the result of this poor communication that really turns an organisation toxic.

If staff do not understand the organisation’s strategy and how it is going to achieve it, they will fill in the information gaps themselves. This will not be done by using facts, it will be done by opinion, bias or hearsay. This is where disengagement begins. It can end with a culture that is based on unnecessary jockeying for position and people telling stories about each other – it is unhealthy competition bred by anxiety caused by the uncertainty. At this particular time, this is something the UK economy cannot afford. A recent article suggested that the true cost of disengagement is now £340 billion and that is before the period of unprecedented change that any form of Brexit will necessitate.   

We have been aware for some time that high absence rates also indicate a problematic culture. As Edwards points out, “if people feel so demoralised, stressed, bored, or fed up that their only option is to fake illness, something has gone seriously wrong.” This has been known to cost us £13 billion in the past. However, this is linked to the fourth sign. In an organisation where complaining is the norm the culture can be demoralising for those who enjoy their jobs, particularly for those who do take the time and effort to find out and accurately judge what type of organisation they are working for. Cynicism and conspiracy theories go unchecked and the quality of decision-making is never factually established leading to people making assumptions that senior managers actually enjoy making decisions that adversely affect people. 

In turn, this feeds into the echo chamber effect where people are fearful of being positive and putting forward ideas that challenge managers and teams to consider more productive ways of working. If staff are fully informed around the strategy, they can make great suggestions to make the operational processes more effective. Without innovation, organisations will stagnate.

Most people want to know how they are performing and how they can improve. A lack of feedback and support will potentially waste talent but line managers often do not have the confidence to have the difficult conversations that will improve performance and personal growth. As Edwards points out, “many organisations still treat feedback as something to be handed out once a year, as part of an uninspiring administrative process - if managers aren’t having regular conversations with their employees, how do they know if they are engaged in their work?”

A lack of recognition only increases the barriers to engagement as it can cause unnecessary resentment between a manager and the staff member. Edwards cites, “the tired ‘Employee of the Month’ award, which recognises one person out of an entire workforce” as a symptom of the overall problem. As well as not having the confidence to have the difficulty conversations, many line managers are equally reluctant to have the more pleasant ones. Is this linked to a lack of diversity? There is a strong argument that biases (whether unconscious or not) are a barrier to effective one to one communication or, even, conversation. As Edwards points out, “diverse teams are more creative for the simple reason that they can approach challenges from more than one angle.” A lack of it will certainly hinder progress.

It has long been assumed that people naturally have a fear of change but many have disputed this and have concluded that is a lack of understanding or having no control that fuels the fear. A culture of perspective through an informed workforce will counter this. People know that their working lives will include times when they do not want change to happen but the fear is really about whether it has been done on a whim and whether they have had to change something for very little benefit to the organisation. This is linked to the final sign where managers never have time for their staff, particularly in explaining why change is essential and, usually, a last resort.

It is frustrating that people still have to write about this when the tools to avoid all of this happening have been hidden in plain sight for ten years. The solutions outlined in the 2009 report Engaging for Success by Nita Clarke and David MacLeod are still as relevant today as they were a decade ago.

Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA

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