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Alexandra Reese's Growth Guide

Actionable insights to improve your leadership, life, and impact

What is this solvable problem? Toxic workplace cultures. 

Toxic workplace cultures cost U.S. companies $50 billion every year (1)!

In this Growth Guide, I breakdown:

  • What it means to have a toxic culture
  • How even great people inadvertently foster toxic cultures 
  • Why you should prioritize healing your toxic culture
  • The #1 sign you have a toxic culture

This edition is about clarifying the problem, so we can have a productive conversation about solutions. Solutions will be the focus of future editions in this series. So, stay tuned!

If you received the Growth Guide from a friend or colleague, welcome! If you like what you read, you may subscribe here

If you know you want to make a dramatic improvement in your culture, you don't need to wait for the next edition of the Growth Guide to start your journey. Join my Coaching Essentials for Leaders program to build 12 essential skills needed to transform your culture from toxic to thriving.


What is "culture?"

Before we can define a “toxic culture,” we must define “culture” itself.

There is a myriad of definitions. Some define culture in terms of features, others in terms of experience. I recommend Gallup’s definition:

This definition underscores the most important thing every leader must understand about culture: culture is the result of what you do and how you do it. Leaders cannot “create culture.” They can influence culture by changing what they do and how they do it.

Every policy, system, structure, decision, and action impacts culture. Of course, some have a greater impact than others. This topic warrants its own discussion and will be the focus of an upcoming Growth Guide in which I’ll share the most important levers you can pull to influence your culture.


What is "toxic culture?"

Organizations contribute to a toxic culture when what they do and how they do it fails to deliver on the expectations they’ve set. Gallup gives three examples that bring this concept to life (2):

  • Marketing messages that do not match employees’ performance incentives
  • Onboarding information for employees that does not match guidance given in management training
  • Leadership's behavior that does not match expected employee behavior

Everyone has a bad day, and mistakes happen. One or two instances alone will not turn an otherwise healthy culture toxic. Toxicity occurs when these behaviors compound and go unaddressed.

In an effort to further refine the working definition of “toxic culture,” MIT analyzed more than 1.3 million Glassdoor reviews from U.S. employees to find common themes (3). Five key attributes emerged:


Feeling disrespected at work is the single most important predictor of how a team member rates their culture. Disrespect can take many forms, some more blatant than others. MIT summarily defines disrespect as a lack of consideration, courtesy, and dignity for others.

Examples of disrespectful behaviors:

  • Ignoring warning signs that a team member is disengaged or burned-out
  • Not recognizing team members when they go above-and-beyond
  • Displaying dismissive body language


Seven of the twenty most powerful predictors of a negative culture relate to how organizations treat diverse groups of employees. Are they made to feel welcome, fairly treated, and included in key decisions?

Although inclusion is typically linked to demographics and identity, other factors can impact perceptions of inclusion. Perceptions of nepotism, favoritism, cliquishness, or other exclusionary behaviors also negatively impact culture.

Examples of non-inclusive behaviors:

  • Providing little transparency around promotion and compensation decisions
  • Involving on-site team members more than their remote counterparts in key decisions
  • Providing parents more flexible working arrangements than non-parents


Unethical behavior is the third most important predictor of a negative culture. It includes perceptions of ethics, integrity, and honesty within an organization. Even seemingly small actions like telling a white lie, sugarcoating the truth, or not following through on a commitment negatively impact culture.

Examples of unethical behaviors:

  • Failing to follow-through on a promotion or advancement commitment
  • Scapegoating a team member for expediency
  • Failing to provide a safe work environment


A cutthroat culture is one in which there is ruthless competition and/or colleagues regularly undermine one another. Some organizations actively seek to create this culture with “rank and yank” or “up and out” advancement policies. Some organizations inadvertently create this culture by tolerating team members who display cutthroat behavior.

Examples of cutthroat behaviors:

  • Instituting forced ranking performance management
  • Tolerating “high-performers” who undermine their peers or direct reports
  • Saying nothing when you hear vicious gossip


An abusive culture is on in which team members experience sustained hostile behavior. That includes overtly abusive behavior like bullying, yelling, and belittling. It also includes more covert behavior like condescending or talking down team members.

Examples of abusive behaviors:

  • Making a humiliating joke
  • Criticizing a team member in front of their coworkers or a client
  • Withholding the information or resources a team member needs to do their job effectively


Even the best leaders inadvertently foster toxic cultures

You probably read the previous section and thought, “that’s not me!” And you’re probably right.

But just because you are not personally disrespectful, exclusive, unethical, cutthroat, or abusive, does not mean you’re not contributing to a culture with these attributes.

I’ve seen great people foster toxic cultures by:

  • Not actively working to ensure all voices are heard
  • Staying silent when they observe toxic behavior
  • Explaining toxic behavior away
  • Waiting for someone else to take action
  • Acting too slowly to address or resolve personnel issues
  • Allowing misinformation to fester
  • Not actively soliciting feedback, assuming “no news is good news”


A toxic culture kills performance

Even if all you (or your stakeholders) care about is improving profitability, you should still care about the toxicity of your culture. Below are seven evidence-backed ways culture kills performance, which I hope will drive home your resolve to take action (4):


Worried about the health of your culture?

Are you worried you might have a culture problem? Then there’s one indicator you should look a first: attrition.

If you have an attrition problem, you have a culture problem. People are 10X more likely to quit over a toxic workplace culture than compensation. So high voluntary attrition is a clear sign that you may have some toxicity in your culture.

A toxic culture is not a death sentence for your organization. You have the power to change it. We'll start talking about solutions in the next edition of the Growth Guide. So, stay tuned!

Can't wait to get started? Join my Coaching Essentials for Leaders program to build 12 essential skills needed to transform your culture from toxic to thriving.


Additional Opportunities to Partner

One-on-one and Team Coaching: If you're ready to rapidly transform your leadership, life, and impact, I'm here to guide the way. As your coach, I'll work with you (and your leadership team, if desired) to clarify your vision and purpose, set bold goals, build an actionable strategy, and cultivate the mindset, beliefs, and behaviors necessary to achieve sustainable results with confidence, ease, and joy. If you're ready to improve your coaching skills, one-on-one and team coaching are great opportunities to do so.

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Growth Advisory: You've been working diligently to grow your organization, but have yet to achieve sustainable results. Or perhaps you've done exceptionally well and are ready to take things to a new level. I can help you hone a compelling vision and strategy, then execute with confidence, ease, and joy. 


Links to Past Editions

Here are links to the first 20 editions:

Feb 23: Pour fire on the fuel of your growth journey

Feb 16: How to become a Coaching Leader

Feb 9: Coaching skills for leaders

Feb 2: The #1 investment you should make to drive outstanding performance in 2023

Jan 26: The do's and don't's of transformation leadership in 2023

Jan 19: To hire a GREAT coach/ consultant, avoid these 3 mistakes

Jan 12: Four strategies to achieve goals with greater confidence and ease

Jan 5: The secret to setting effective goals

Dec 22Glean powerful insights from 2022 w/ this 3-step reflection process

Dec 15: Nine proven strategies to eliminate stress

Dec 1: Three things you can do now to boost success in 2023

Nov 17Eight signs you've got a feedback problem & how to fix it!

Nov 10: Make performance management your unfair advantage

Oct: 1/ The four elements of a high-performing leadership team, 2/ Cultivate an empowered leadership mindset

Sep: 1/ Replan for Q4, 2/ Jumpstart growth through self-awareness, 3/ Three Qs to save you BIG in your next strategy process 

Aug: 1/ Adapt your strategy process, 2/ Support your mid-level managers, 3/ Halt your mid-career crisis

Jul: 1/ Win with values, 2/ How to get hybrid work right, 3/ Vacation like a European

Jun: 1/ The mid-year review, 2/ Sharpen your creative skills, 3/ Win through failure

May: 1/ Prepare for downturns; 2/ Better, faster decisions; 3/ Embrace difference to improve performance

Apr: 1/ The Q1 review, 2/ Prime yourself for success, 3/ Focus your innovation investments for impact


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