10 Signs Your Organization’s Culture is Toxic

Ever wonder if your organization’s culture is toxic?

Apparently, not enough leaders do.

According to a Gallup survey, only 15% of employees globally are engaged at work.

In America, 30% of employees are engaged, which at first sounds great.

Except, that means that 70% of your workforce feels like their job is grinding the life of out of them. 70% of the people you’ve hired, or who are part of your organization, aren’t showing up with their best, productivity is low and your mission is suffering.

Underneath that is almost always some kind of unhealthy or toxic culture that demotivates your team.

As a result, every day, good people leave. People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses and cultures.

One of the most important roles you have as a leader is to create a healthy culture that attracts and keeps healthy team members.

One of the challenges in leadership is that the boss is often the last to know that their work culture is toxic.

Leaders consistently overestimate how healthy they are and how healthy their team is.

That’s why I developed my Lead A Better Team course. To help you lead your team to be as healthy and productive as possible. You can get instant access here.

So, how would you know your organization’s culture is toxic?

Here are ten signs.

1. You talk ABOUT people, not TO them

The golden rule of conflict is this: talk to the person you have an issue with, not about them.

In too many organizations, the opposite is true.

People talk about people rather than to them.

Companies are bad that this, but so are churches. Even in churches, conflict gets swept under the carpet, played out in a passive-aggressive way or spilled out onto social media.

The church should the BEST organization in the world in dealing with conflict. Often, we can be the worst.

The next time you want to talk about someone (i.e. gossip), talk to them instead.

If you can’t or won’t, then it’s not that big of an issue, so let it go. Or, you have a problem deeper than you realize. Get some help.

This also stops gossip dead in its tracks.

2. You have to play politics to get anything done

One sure sign of a toxic culture is that you have to play politics to get anything done.

You know things have gotten political in your organization when:

Decisions rarely get made the way they’re supposed to be made.

Most decisions happen outside of meetings or any agreed-upon process.

You can’t get a yes without offering something in return.

You have to continually lobby to be heard.

If you’re always jockeying, lobbying and courting favor to get the right decision made, it’s a sign your organization is unhealthy.

In the local church in particular, having to play politics to win is a sure sign there’s sin.

When you do what you say you’re going to do the way you said you’re going to do it, you bring health to an organization.

3. What gets said publicly is different from what’s happening privately

Another sign things are becoming toxic is when what gets said publicly is different than what happened privately.

When there’s a spin on every issue, and nothing can be said publicly without ‘agreeing’ on what gets said first, you’re in dangerous territory.

For sure, there are times where a situation is delicate, and you will want to ‘agree’ on what gets said publicly to honour everyone involved, but in too many organizations few things that get done privately can be announced the same way publicly.

And to be sure…when you’re crafting any kind of a public statement, you want to pay attention to the words you use and perhaps even find agreement on them.

But the end product should never be the opposite or even different than what actually happened.

I have the good fortune of being part of several healthy organizations. I love it when people pull me aside and ask (in hushed tones), “So what’s the real story?” And I get to tell them, “Actually, that is the real story.”

Living in that kind of culture really helps you sleep at night, too.

4. Conflict happens and is never addressed

Conflict is normal. You can’t have two people hang out for long without some differences arising.

Yet, so many organizations are in perpetual fighting mode. Someone’s always at war with someone else.

Another reason churches fight regularly is because personal preferences have trumped organizational mission.

Left unattended, conflict can pit one selfish person or group against another.

A lot of bosses won’t address conflict or help resolve it in a healthy direction and respectful way.

Unresolved or unhealthy conflict zaps the strength out of most organizations.

If your organization is stagnant and in conflict, there should zero mystery as to why it isn’t growing.

5. There’s an entrenched ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality

Every organization should be a ‘we,’ not an ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Whether the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality exists between factions in your organization, or between you and the outside forces, it’s always fatal to health and growth.

The job of a leader is to raise vision high enough and urgently enough for all of us to become bigger than any of us.

6. No one takes responsibility

So who’s taking responsibility for moving the mission forward?

In unhealthy cultures, the answers sound like this:

No one.


Anybody but me.

As long as things are someone else’s responsibility, things will never get better.

Unhealthy leaders assign blame. Healthy leaders assume responsibility.

7. You can’t tell the truth

One sure sign a culture has gone toxic is when you feel you can’t tell the truth at work, so you go home and ‘dump’ all the truth out on your spouse or best friend instead.

There’s only one problem with that: someone who doesn’t work where you work can’t solve your workplace issues.

But your boss can.

One of the best things you can do as a boss is to encourage your team to speak freely, to tell you the truth…without fear of consequences.

You won’t love everything you hear.

But if you thank them for the feedback, never penalize them for telling you the truth, and take action, you’ll love hearing about the things that are bothering them far more than you’ll love hearing that one of your top team members is leaving.

And, once you know what the real issues are, you can start to solve them.

8. Everyone seems fine with good enough

Toxicity isn’t just about the presence of bad things. It’s also about the absence of great things.

Far too often in workplaces, people settle for good enough when it’s really not, well, good at all.

High capacity leaders are repulsed by mediocrity. The best team members actually crave high levels of challenge and want things to be better, if not great.

Too many organizations allow what is good to stand in the way of what could be great. The surest way to ensure a mediocre future is to resign yourself to a mediocre present.

9. There’s very little gratitude

Most people want to know they’re making a difference. Very few bosses tell them they are.

Recognition and gratitude is a simple way to reduce employee turnover and absenteeism and raise employee engagement.

If your team doesn’t know whether they’re making a difference, they’ll be less motivated to make a difference.

10. Only the boss’ opinion matters

It’s amazing that so many leaders hire a team and never really listen to them.

That’s also one more sign of an unhealthy culture.

It’s easy to think that once you’ve become a leader or boss, it gives you the right to call the shots and make the team and organization bend to your wishes. But as Patrick Lencioni argues, that’s the opposite of true leadership.

As Andy Stanley says, “Leaders who refuse to listen will eventually be surrounded by people with nothing to say.”

What Signs of Toxic Culture Would You Add?

This could have been a 41 point blog post, but I stopped at 10.

What signs of a toxic culture have you seen or experienced?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

10 Signs Your Organization’s Culture is Toxic


  1. Haman on July 14, 2021 at 1:51 pm

    This morning I had a scheduled meeting with a team member who needed some correction. Truth be told, I was secretly hoping that what I would share might push them to resign from the team. This would eliminate the dysfunction and make it easier for everyone, right? A couple hours before the meeting though, I read this blog post, and one quote in particular jumped out to me: “The golden rule of conflict is this: talk to the person you have an issue with, not about them.” God used this to cut straight to my heart and point out some of the ugliness inside. (to Him be the glory) I have been so focused on how wronged and disrespected I’ve felt, and haven’t cared nearly as much about this brother in Christ. Time will tell if these issues can be resolved…but my soul needed this correction today. Thank you.

  2. Ross Bowerman on July 29, 2020 at 10:34 pm

    On the 15 June, 1215 AD, the on-the-frontline leaders of England (in this case, regional barons) got together to clarify and sign a statement limiting the power of the King to shift their system of governance from being self-serving to more people-serving. It called out a toxic culture and was a major step toward the successful democracy that is Britain today. Congratulations, Carey – every now and then, you write something that is historic. May your 10 SIGNS become our Magna Carta, a measurable touchstone and sobering warning we will refer to forever, clarifying the purpose and model of senior leadership.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 30, 2020 at 1:12 pm

      Ha ha. That’s funny. Glad it helped! I think a healthy workplace will soon become non-negotiable.

      • Igwe Emmanuel. on July 31, 2020 at 2:43 pm

        This is a great help to me and answers many hidden questions in my leadership. Thank you so much for such investment on me.

  3. theartist on July 29, 2020 at 7:28 pm

    A Pastor/Ministry Leader— surrounded by “YES” leaders and members…will always remain “stuck in the mud.”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 31, 2020 at 9:10 am

      So much truth in that.

  4. Dennis on July 29, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    Carey, did you follow me through my 30 year career? Every. Single. Point. All of them . . . were the norm. Some waxed and waned through the years. Even when a new leader came in, the culture that was so ingrained never changed much. My career was in the arena of public safety. Fire, EMS, and emergency management specifically. Retirement is a balm like no other for the soul of anyone who endures many years of a toxic culture in order to receive a pension. It does take a toll though.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 31, 2020 at 9:10 am

      Dennis. Busted.

      It’s amazing how understanding human nature can make insight almost universal. Thanks!

  5. Hilda on July 29, 2020 at 2:14 pm

    Our boss shared this article with us. He has an open door policy, won’t tolerate gossip, listens to us no matter what we say. The quote of the week on the whiteboard is from Mrs. Frizzle – Make mistakes, get messy. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty darn good and we are moving in the right direction. We also have fun – today we all met downstairs for an ice cream tasting contest.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 29, 2020 at 2:56 pm

      Sounds like an awesome boss!

  6. bob on July 29, 2020 at 10:43 am

    The points made are good points. I don’t see a congregation addressing the points you have listed And, I think it is because they are new to culture, driven by internet/social media. Can you list a good example of a church where they are training folks, and conducting small groups that are more open forum and welcoming to non Christ followers? I would like to see where the points above are being adequately addressed and worked on.

    • James Hall on July 29, 2020 at 11:26 am

      I would appreciate some input on how to heal this dysfunction.

      Many times churches have experienced splits, loss of purpose because of an undermining philosophy within the body during these times. In our case, survival became the underlying goal and fear, extreme individuality, ‘other side of the fence‘ mentality became prevalent. We are slowly progressing away from it. But it has Hindered our growth and retention including unity. We are incrementally moving out of this but not fast enough to stop fear and escape from being an option.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on July 29, 2020 at 1:38 pm

        For sure. A simple answer is to do the opposite. Not really a joke.

        Also, the free resource I offer in the post teaches much more about creating a healthy culture.

        • Joe Jansen on July 30, 2020 at 9:58 pm

          Doing the opposite worked well for George Castanza !

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 29, 2020 at 1:41 pm

      Hi Bob. I think some of these problems are as old as human nature.

      There are a lot of unhealthy churches but many healthy ones. I have interviewed over 300 leaders on my Leadership Podcast and you can catch many examples of healthy churches and business on it. It’s free. Just The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.

  7. Courtney on July 29, 2020 at 10:41 am

    This is great, but how do we fix these problems. Maybe add a follow-up post with responses?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 29, 2020 at 1:39 pm

      Download the free resource and the other things I’ll offer in future resources. That will help!

  8. Brian Harpell on July 29, 2020 at 10:13 am

    Fear fuels all of these dysfunctions.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 29, 2020 at 1:39 pm

      Agreed. Fear that often surfaces as insecurity.

  9. Zina Torres on July 29, 2020 at 10:06 am

    I thank a co-worker for sharing this with us. Loved this article. So timely and true.
    Thank you Carey, for caring!

  10. Holland L Webb on July 29, 2020 at 9:57 am

    11. The boss does all the work and doesn’t share it with the team.
    12. The boss raises their voice when dealing with a difficult or underperforming employee.
    13. People are threatened but never coached.
    14. Expectations and rules are unclear.
    15. Fun is frowned upon.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 29, 2020 at 1:39 pm


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