What can an Organization Development practitioner do to help change a toxic work culture? 

“This mirroring of negative behavior may have its roots in the reciprocal relationship between leaders and employees,” the researchers explain. “An employee who is mistreated may feel the only way to get ahead in their job is to treat others as they have been treated themselves—this may not always be intentional, but it results in a race to the bottom among employees and damages job security and leads to stress and exhaustion.” (Li, M., Ahmed, A., Syed, O. R., Khalid, N., & Muñoz, J. E. 2022

Within toxic work cultures, people often feel a need to turn in and turn on teammates and friends. This toxic turn is a belief that if I turn in the other person for talking badly about the manager or organization, not doing their work, or some perceived slight – I will be seen as a ‘good one’ or be brought into the in-group. Generally, this in-group feels less of the bold toxicity, yet they know they must continue supporting the toxic organization and sacrifice others. 

Sometimes whole organizations can be toxic. 

The Toxic Five attributes 

  1. disrespectful, 
  2. noninclusive, 
  3. unethical, 
  4. cutthroat, 
  5. and abusive

Sometimes managers and teammates are toxic. 

What can an Organization Development practitioner do to help change a toxic work culture? 

The easy answer is to RUN and get as far away as possible, which may be challenging. We often have bills to pay, commitments we wish to keep, or just getting away is not that easy. 

If you stay as an Organization Development practitioner, be cautious about being used to justify this toxic work culture! 

Then when I calm myself down and ask – What can I do? 

  1. OD could be the punching bag and the person who takes the heat and blame that employees cannot unload at management. This may help create a conversation about what works well and what is not, even if skeptical. 
  2. Support the employees to create ‘Islands of Sanity’ (Wheatley 2017, Who do we choose to be) that they can cluster on while finding ways to push away or collectively laugh at all the toxic BS. 
  3. OD can gather cultural assessment and feedback and help the org self-reflect. 
  4. OD can help identify 2 to 3 areas to make things less toxic, develop a change or strategic priorities process, and support/coach a small team to do that. 
  5. OD can recommend that Sr Management be fired and offer to support hiring new Sr management using a process to look at work culture and the types of behaviors, competency, and behaviors that would reinforce a new culture. 
  6. OD can help find a small group within the organization that wants to improve and adjust the current toxic culture — find ways to seed and support their efforts, and advise plus help them create a sufficient amount of noise and operational success to, in a semi-rebellion, point to how things can be better. 
  7. OD can agree to a slow process of identifying granular microchanges within the organization and choose to remove one toxic piece and replace it with a less toxic piece … over years or decades, the shift of toxicity goes away, and the organization is different without many people noticing the change. 

Toxicity is often on a continuum, and your ability to take the toxicity dosage depends on your preference and tolerance. It is like pain; we all interpret it in our sense of identity, intention, and experience. If you are an Organization Development, Change Management, Talent Development, or Organization Design professional and find yourself within a toxic work culture, I hope the ideas help.