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Home » Business Owners

How we turnaround ‘toxic’ workplaces

One of the most common signs that something is wrong with your organisation is when people start taking unplanned sickness and absence.  To an outsider visiting the organisation, they can tell things are toxic long before that. They notice that the employees don’t smile and no one seems to be enjoying themselves.

These people are disengaged.

Organisations often say that they want to increase employee engagement and for good reason. Because engaged employees are happy employees and happy employees make for happy customers and happy customers spend more money.

So how do we fix this?

Quite often when we work with companies, management say what they want to change and the first thing we say to them, is that they have to be the change that they want to see.  They have to be role models for their employees.

Changing behaviour is not about changing posters and redecorating. It’s about living what you believe and being seen to be an ambassador for the values and the organisation.

Secondly you have to find out what issue is really stopping things moving forward. For example I worked with one client who had a member of the Finance team who was quite vocal about  how he’d been let down by the lack of support for his accounting exams by the organisation. The impact was quite significant on the rest of the team. So we cut through that and said that if he repaid the costs of the previous course, then the  organisation would fund his training at a better organisation with better staff.  He was delighted, with that and switched from being actively disengaged to engaged.

Once we’d cut through the issue he was ‘on side’ and we could move on with implementing the other changes necessary to move the organisation forward.

How to turn an organisation around quickly

Most people think that it takes time to turnaround a ‘toxic’ organisation, but it really doesn’t. But, what it does need is commitment from the managers and leaders of the organisation to make things work.

In our experience implementing the following will also help get results quickly:

  1. let people make decisions
  2. sharing the financial results and getting input from your employees
  3. share information – secrecy breeds conjecture and gossip which contributes to a toxic environment
  4. invest in your people – show them you care – invest in things to make their job easier like IT or training.

So what do you think? Have you worked in a toxic environment?   Do you work in one now?

Let us know in the comments below.


  • Dave Doolin said:

    From my experience, real change happens instantly, but there always seems to be this long, agonizing period of “imminent change” where nothing happens, despite the best of intentions.

    Trusted employees and subcontractors is critical for getting a good night’s sleep. In my opinion! Let them do what they know how to do best, stay out of the way. More employers should do this.

  • Ben said:

    Completely agree Dave. Its getting ready for the real change that takes the time.

  • Matthew Needham said:

    You’re right Ben. Getting the environment right is the most important and the most time consuming thing. Thanks for your comment!

  • Matthew Needham said:

    You’re right Dave. Basically there’s 3 types of employees. 1) Actively engaged 2) Fence Sitters and what I call 3) Corporate Terrorists – the trick is to influence the Fence sitters. Generally most efforts are spent trying to turnaround the Corporate Terrorists. In my experience this is wasted effort. Best to spend the time getting rigd of the Terrorists. It’s much better for morale.

    Fundamentally, too many organisations say they want to change, but in reality don’t want to. Thanks for the comment Dave, much appreciated. Matthew

  • Adrian Swinscoe said:

    Hi Matthew,
    Completely agree that organisations should spend more time getting rid of the wrong people. Why don’t more organisations do this? Is it a matter of contract, unions or that we just don’t know how to manage people out of an organisation or team?


  • Matthew Needham said:

    Hi Adrian, thanks for the comments. I think it’s down to the manager’s ego. They think they can fix things and turnaround an underperforming / disenfranchised employee. When in fact the smart thing to do is cut your losses. I once tried managing an employee for over a year out of the business. Basically he just did enough and it was a game to him as to how little he could get away with. In the end we terminated his employement via compromise agreement. The resulting benefits to the team morale when he’d gone were immediate. Everyone recognised that he was a waste of space and were glad to see the back of him.

    Sometimes, in the end, to change the people you need to change the people.