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The #1 Cause of a Toxic Workplace Culture

If there’s one thing that leaders don’t want their workplace culture to be considered, the word “toxic” is arguably the first term that comes to mind. Toxicity can cause high performers to underachieve, exceptional employees to explore new opportunities, company morale to deflate, and overall business performance to suffer. Although the pandemic enabled millions of workers to depart from the confines of their offices and begin working from home, toxic workplaces have proven to permeate these remote work boundaries. Recent incidents highlighting toxic workplace culture in India have sparked conversations and heightened employee concerns.

When evaluating and examining the composition of toxic work environments in companies around the globe, one primary factor is consistent in each workplace. So what is the underlying cause behind these toxic workplace cultures—and what can be done to stop it?

The top reason for toxicity

While many issues can play a role in attributing to toxic workplace cultures, the most pervasive is weak leadership. From placing the wrong resources in executive positions to lacking a clear and persistent business strategy among C-suite leaders, toxic workplaces almost always have improper people sitting atop their organization. Although these leaders are supposed to be stewards of the company’s image and brand, their ineptitude can create a trickle effect throughout the rest of their business.

How to prevent a toxic workplace culture

If you’re an upper-level leader at an organization battling high turnover rates, it’s time to look yourself in the mirror. One of the most common expressions—attributed to Marcus Buckingham—used to explain workforce attrition is: “People leave managers—not companies.” Preventing a toxic workplace culture begins with evaluating your managers and ensuring they’re in the correct position to succeed. Are these people fit to lead an entire department or team? Can they relate to—or be empathetic with—their staff? Do they have a positive attitude that can help to overcome adversity? If the answer to most of these questions is “no,” then it could be time to make a change.

Organizations conducting employee engagement surveys are often far more attuned to their workers’ challenges. This is a great way to solicit input from your workforce and evaluate the performance of management teams. You could pick up on key executives struggling to lead their teams effectively by encouraging your employees to be honest in their survey responses.

Some managers have resorted to command-and-control leadership styles, often damaging employee engagement and productivity. As we saw throughout the pandemic, leaders who could articulate and effectively level-set expectations often shepherded teams that performed well despite ever-changing circumstances.

The path to achieving a strong workplace culture includes the elimination of negativity, and this starts at the leadership level. DDI, a leading researcher in the corporate world, has determined that one poor leader costs an organization more than $126,000 over one year due to low productivity, turnover, and worker contention.

If weak leaders are toxic, what behaviors do strong leaders exhibit? Positive leaders share optimism, hope, and inspiration with their team through success stories and acknowledge individual and group achievements. They also identify opportunities for future improvement as opposed to complaining and blaming. Leaders who demonstrate empathy, humility, and integrity often build inclusive cultures that foster purpose, innovation, and mutual support during unique and uncertain times.

Related: Assessing Leadership Skills in an Interview

What to do if you’re part of a toxic workplace culture

After reading these last few paragraphs, do you realize some parts of your work culture are toxic? If so, it’s time to make some changes. Upon uncovering these toxicities, the worst thing that any manager or leader could do is remain silent. For something to improve, action must be taken. And if things don’t improve, the long-term viability of your business could be thrown into question.

Ultimately, turning around a negative workplace culture starts with honest and open discourse. Be transparent with your employees about the internal challenges that are facing your organization—and encourage them to propose resolutions that could help the business. These suggestions could be valuable enough to implement, effectively enhancing company morale. If your employees feel like they’re being heard, they’re more likely to work harder and be more engaged.

It may also benefit your organization to examine potential “bad actors”—leaders who may not fit their roles properly. Are managers overworking their teams? Are executives failing to offer proper guidance or ample feedback to their employees? Are leaders struggling to communicate with their teams effectively? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” it may be time to evaluate your leadership. Utilizing talent assessment tools like The Predictive Index is critical in identifying the strengths, weaknesses, and potential blind spots of your upper-level managers. Once you’ve taken steps to identify the skills the upper manager needs to build upon, pick one on which to focus. Choosing the skill that will provide the greatest impact on the manager’s specific role is best as a starting point. Employ training programs and coaching to give the manager the tools, insight, and skills needed to become a successful leader.


As toxic workplaces have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, businesses need to be strategic when addressing issues in their company culture. Executives must be cognizant that improving a toxic workplace culture won’t be a quick fix. This slow and deliberate process will take considerable time, genuine effort, and collective buy-in before results are observed. Although progress in the early going might be difficult to observe, your employees can gauge whether you’re genuinely invested in making a positive difference in your business environment. Leave little doubt that changing your company culture is nothing less than your top priority!

This blog was written by Acara India’s Senior Manager of Business Development Chris Joanna.