Skip to content

Five Signs of Toxic Culture

I had an interesting conversation with a school leader yesterday centered around school culture. For those who don’t know me, let me share with you that my passion for leadership begins with the importance of organizational culture. As leaders, we can do so many things to get ahead of, or chase, our data. Often times, this search for better data (test scores, graduation rates, attendance rates, etc) can lead to implementation overload, lack of focus on what really matters (kids), and toxic school culture. Toxic cultures are defined by low morale, in-fighting, lack of connection to the workplace by employees, poor leadership, and high employee turnover. But what do you look for as evidence you’re living, working, and being subjected to a toxic culture? Here are 5 surefire signs of a toxic culture.

1. A lack of clear expectation – as a school principal, I once was in a classroom observing a fairly new teacher. On this particular day, her students were up moving around, talking, and were generally off-task while she was attempting to deliver a lesson. When we sat later to discuss the findings of my observation, she told me she was embarrassed by her students’ behavior. Again, she was either a first or second year teacher, so I understood her feelings and agreed. This was a coaching moment after all. I remember asking her what she held for expectations of her students. She told me she had ‘high expectations’ of their behavior but as we continued to talk, she acknowledged she hadn’t been clear what that meant to her students. She also shared that she was inconsistent with holding the kids to what she wanted to see from them. As the conversation continued, she realized she had to be more clear, frequently repeat and reinforce, and recognize when the expectations were met in order for her students to hit the mark. Like the teacher in this example, we are often guilty as adults of this very thing. We assume people know what we want or expect from them without us being clear. Sometimes, we might even have different levels of expectations for various groups, but if they don’t know that, how can we hold them to those expectations. The other struggle with expectations being clear comes from a lack of follow through. If, like the teacher above, we say we have high expectations but we don’t hold people to those expectations, we simply have high hopes. Don’t misunderstand, you don’t have to be a jerk to hold people to a standard. If you are clear, consistent, and hold yourself to the same standard, people will rise to that which you expect.

2. Serial complaining – and you JUST saw someone’s face or name fly across your mind, didn’t you. We have all been around these people. Jon Gordon refers to them as energy vampires. They can suck the life out of you and out of any room they enter. Some people just simply like to complain, and it is TOXIC for your culture. Let’s be honest, we all need to vent sometimes, but the continual complaining for the sake of complaining…that is exhausting. Those energy vampires take a toll on your culture by creating little tornadoes of negative energy. As they move on to continue griping to the next person, the one who just felt their wrath is left with a black cloud over their head. It tends to spread, quickly. If you find yourself surrounded by the serial complainers, you very well may be in the midst of a toxic culture. Try this with your constant griper, maybe just tell them ‘hey, we don’t do that here’. Perhaps that might slow their tendency to pour the whine.

3. Disengaged stakeholders – everyone wants to be a part of the winning team. Winning is contagious, brings energy, and can create such a positive feeling. Unfortunately, toxic cultures have a similar, yet opposite effect. When a toxic culture begins to take over, many of the different stakeholders can pull back and disengage from the organization. Examining a toxic school culture might lead us to find empty seats at school events, staff not attending voluntary or social gatherings, and students participating in school sponsored athletics and activities at a lower rate than that is a positive culture. Think about it, if students are not connecting with their school, the likelihood of them being as successful as possible drops considerably. Looking back at a toxic culture from my past, I worked at a school in which the number of kids attending home athletic contests to cheer on their classmates was extraordinarily low. The number of students in the marching band was 1/4th what it should have been, and aside from parents, many of our plays, concerts, and games were performed in front of very little community support. When staff are not interested in being present for student activities, unless mandated, that is another sure sign of negative culture trends.

4. Leadership waffles – nothing can crumble the base of school culture like leadership that can’t or won’t make a decision. Worse, is leadership that changes their mind constantly, never sticking to a decision and being influenced too severely by the last voice in their ear. If leadership is not willing to have and hold clear expectations and cannot then ‘walk the walk’, you can count on the negative energy growing and turning the culture in a toxic direction. School culture is not dependent on the leaders, however, poor leadership CAN quickly unravel school culture. If you are the leader in this situation, be clear about what matters to you, be clear on your expectations, and don’t be afraid of conflict or disagreement. If you make a quality decision and stick with it, rather than be easily influenced by a serial complainer, you’ll be back on the road to positive culture.

5. Focusing on what is wrong – if you’ve read my book, Road to Awesome: Empower, Lead, Change the Game, then you know about the two questions that changed my career, my leadership style. If we continue to look for and focus on what is WRONG, we will find it without fail. If we look at students and think about what they CAN’T do rather than what they CAN or MIGHT do, we are selling them, and ourselves, short. What happens, however, if we focus on what is right in a situation, if we look at what we have in common rather than the things on which we disagree? When the focus in on positive interactions, more positive interactions will take place. When we work to find the good in a situation, our mindset changes over time and we find the good more often. We hear about mindset a lot…I mean A LOT. But, it’s true. Put your focus on the great things happening every day in your classroom, your school, your district, your community. Shout them out, say thank you….recognize, reward, and reinforce the positives and quickly you will find your way out of a toxic culture.

While this is not an exhaustive list, this certainly gives the idea of what to look for, or look out for, in a toxic environment. I have spent that better part of my 25+ year career in education finding the good, the positive, and building those school cultures that allow for students to not only survive, but to thrive. As a leadership speaker, consultant, and coach my work is to help schools focus on positive, inclusive, all means all school cultures. If I can be of any help to you or your school/district, please reach out!

Have a #RoadToAwesome week


Published inUncategorized

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar