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Can you ever 'fix' a broken culture at work - or should you quit?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
(Getty Images)

You’ve started a new job and the pay is great, the commute isn’t too bad and the work is manageable. A few weeks down the line, however, a few problems have become apparent.  

Your manager never lets anyone leave on time and everyone seems to wish they were somewhere else.

Flexible working is a no-no, even for employees with young children. Rather than a friendly atmosphere, staff seem to stick together in cliques - which creates tension in the office. 

Read more: How to spot microaggressions at work

A toxic culture is one of the biggest problems a business can face and more often than not, it leads to a demotivated, unproductive workforce and lower company profits. Although quitting and finding a new job seems like the most obvious answer, this isn’t always possible. 

The signs of a bad work culture

So what are the signs of a bad culture at work - and is it something you can ever improve yourself? 

“Generally speaking, if you have a feeling that your workplace has a bad or toxic culture, it probably does,” says Claire Williams, director of people and services at CIPHR, a UK provider of people management systems. 

“But it’s worth being honest with yourself: are the problems that are causing your organisation stress or difficulties actually down to isolated individuals or events, or pervasive, organisation-wide culture failings?” 

Organisation culture can be tricky to get right and there are various signs of a poor culture. “A lack of a clear vision or set of values – or having ones that are only referenced by posters on the wall, and not through daily behaviours – is a clear indication that the culture isn’t working,” Williams says.

Read more: How middle management can kill a company

Presenteeism – putting in long hours at the office for no reason other than to be seen to ‘be there’ – is another sign that something has gone wrong. “Unacceptable behaviours – such as bullying, harassment, discrimination, rudeness, poor time keeping – that are tolerated in certain individuals, but not in others, is another symptom,” she adds. 

People may be more likely to shift the blame for their failures onto other people, or refuse to help out their colleagues in a pinch.

“Micromanagement, a lack of individual autonomy, a lack of trust, and a lack of space for healthy discussion of ideas are also all signs of a poor culture, which might be seen organisation-wide or, more often, within a particular team or department,” Williams says.

According to Williams, your ability to make a change in an organisation depends on two factors - how influential you are and your energy or drive to succeed. 

Read more: How to beat your micromanaging habit

“An influential leader who is committed to positive cultural change can certainty achieve that by mobilising their network of senior colleagues, modelling behaviours that they want their peers and staff to demonstrate, by calling out unacceptable behaviours, and by leading a review of the organisation’s guiding principles and values,” she explains.

An employee with less influence or power may find it harder, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. 

“Start by identifying the change elements that really matter to you and could have the most profound positive impact,” Williams says. “Figure out what your ‘quick wins’ are – what are the small changes that are within your power to make? 

“If a lack of team spirit or helpfulness is a key issue, for example, do what you can to help out your colleagues – especially those from different teams. Go out of your way to build and strengthen relationships, and you might find those efforts are reciprocated and replicated by others.”

Ultimately, trying to change the culture of a company is difficult and time-consuming work – and it requires dedication to a job. Improving a toxic culture is essential if organisations are to attract and retain the best employees and to serve as a foundation for future growth.

If it becomes clear that things are unlikely to change, however, it may be time to bite the bullet and look for other work - rather than let the job affect your physical and mental health.