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5 Warning Signs That You're Building a Toxic Culture


For the first time in our history, my college basketball team won the Ivy League Title my junior year. Cornell’s marching band even took a bus to Connecticut to cheer for us in our first round NCAA Championship game against UConn. It. Was. Wild. And, we were poised to win again my senior year.... but once our season ended, 3 of our best returning players, including the player of the year… quit.

That experience taught me a very clear lesson: Even high-performing teams can’t survive a toxic culture. Eventually, it drains even high performers of their desire to win.

5 Red Flags of a Toxic Workplace

We as leaders are called upon to create an environment for the team to thrive. And that starts with being able to identify the subtle signs of the poisoned well. Here are 5 red flags that I’ve learned are the most subtle and widespread:

1. Passive Agreement:

The value of a 1 + 1 = 3 team lies in its diverse perspectives. If everyone constantly agrees, it’s probably because 1) the team lead makes all decisions, and the team is now passive, powerless, and disengaged, 2) No one feels empowered, informed, or inspired enough to question the status quo, or 3) folks are more concerned with being liked than productive. Either way, the tyranny of “sure” means that this team is missing out on innovation potential, and top performers are likely bored.

2. Idea Hoarding:

This one’s hard to spot, but a good sign is a mix of robust pitches, but quiet brainstorms. Members of this team generally refuse to share their ideas or questions until they are fully formed, and even vetted by leadership. The problem here is that by not exposing others to the nascent idea, they lose the opportunity to collaborate early, gain widespread buy-in, and adapt their idea according to broader insights. The result is often that big ideas flounder without group support.

3. Weird Tension and Periodic Blow Ups:

Smart, caring, passionate folks stepping on each other’s toes? This OH SO FIXABLE trait of toxic teaming is generally a symptom of a lack of candor. Meaning that your team (or interdependent teams) lack the skills to navigate feedback and conflict in a healthy way. Without this clarity, they KEEP doing the same things that drive each other nuts, and relationships and productivity suffer.

4. Blaming or Hiding Failure:

Investigators found that the Deep Water Horizon oil spill could have been avoided if employees felt safe to speak up about mistakes. And while you may not be handling hazardous materials, hiding mistakes, or blaming others means that when mistake does arise - it’s going to be a BIG one. Consider how high stakes, egos, and defensiveness might be getting in the way of trying new things, learning from and anticipating small-scale mistakes before they erupt into big ones.

5. Imbalanced Participation:

What percentage of your team participated in the last brainstorming meeting? (If you can’t think of the last time you had a meeting to brainstorm - consider how many people are then excluded from that process.) This imbalance often signals a tiered power structure that feeds exclusion, sameness, and over-dependency on the few in power. In reality, this team is operating at a percentage of their potential, and risks disruption due to things like turnover, change, a surge in work, or a high-powered person’s mood.

Leadership and Successful Workplace Culture

Real talk: as a leader, your behavior shapes the culture of the team. The way you delegate, set expectations, listen to others, ask for input and help, give and respond to feedback, and believe deeply about the role of failure in your career, informs your team’s unspoken norms.

The defensive leader dismisses that reality. The daring leader knows that her fears of that responsibility are a sign that she’s ready for it.

In the fabulous words of Ed Catmul, “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it, or throw it away and come up with something better.”

When you’re ready to build a better team, let’s talk.

Til then - I got your back! Shannan

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