My research and overall work focuses on positively influencing thriving workplaces. One unavoidable aspect of this work is toxic culture. My vocation has centered on counteracting organizational norms that drive members apart.  

In the workplace, many of these poor performing interpersonal outcomes are characterized as “toxic culture.” Though this phrasing may seem extreme at first glance, the fact is “toxic” is appropriate as we consider how the impact of these negative outcomes impact employees and spread throughout the organizational system.

Toxic Culture 

Toxic organizational cultures lack positive interpersonal relations, which affects the productivity and well-being of the people in the office. Toxic cultures ultimately lead to members lacking trust. 

The impact of toxic cultures varies, but one aspect to consider is a rampant feeling of employees feeling unappreciated. A lack of recognition and appreciation often leads to dissatisfaction and ultimately, overall performance and productivity diminishing. 

Not all organizations are toxic or even have always been toxic. Sometimes the climate slowly shifts into a negative environment, and top management does not immediately counteract the situation. Unfortunately, we are seeing the impact of toxic cultures firsthand as according to MIT, toxic culture is driving the great resignation.

The Impact of a Toxic Culture 

Counteracting a toxic culture should be a top priority for all business leaders. Toxic cultures are characterized by low morale and eroded trust, ultimately having a negative impact on overall productivity and profitability. In these environments, even the most loyal employees may become disillusioned, leading to poorer performance and overall disengagement. 

Examining the unintentional impact of these cultures, collaboration and productivity can suffer and knowledge sharing will diminish which negatively impacts the organization’s ability to hire and retain talent.

The Role of Leadership 

Leadership sets the tone and direction of the organizational climate. How this plays out in the organization is that the behaviors that are allowed ultimately have an impact on employees in the organization. It is the leader’s role to influence and model an organization where trust is at the foundation, clear and consistent communication both upward and downward are present, and finally, inclusion and belonging are norms. 

As we further examine the leader’s role in counteracting toxic organizational culture, it is recognized that leaders must be an agent of change and operate in alignment with norms that promote psychological safety, trust, and overall well-being for all members of the organization. The most important takeaway for leaders is that leadership upholds and models, whether overtly or covertly, what behavior is allowed in the organization.

What to Measure to Counteract Toxic Organizational Culture 

Leaders should create systems that measure various functions of their organizational climate and culture. This includes going beyond “engagement” surveys, as engagement is an outcome of other factors. In other words, leaders should seek to examine further upstream at the factors that can impact things like trust, stress, engagement, and burnout.

  • Interpersonal Structures (People-Focused): These include employee-perceived influence, employee involvement, employee level of empowerment and perception of autonomy, upward/downward communication.


  • Organizational Structures (Task-Focused): These include perception of performance appraisal and promotion process, goal-setting mechanisms, interdependence, job design.


  • Leadership Effectiveness: Leadership effectiveness can be measured by task-related KPIs. On the interpersonal side, it is important to examine turnover in department and 360° evaluations that are developmental based on organizationally prescribed leadership competencies. 

The Importance of Qualitative Data 

The final aspect to consider is that qualitative data is essential as we seek to counteract toxic culture. It is important for organizations to establish qualitative data approaches that are consistent and proactive. 

These approaches include listening tours and focus groups. This qualitative data may also include opportunities for anonymous feedback for the purpose of providing a level of comfort for staff to voice their opinion. Qualitative data acquisition should be established and planned similar to quantitative methods to ensure context of more quantitative data.


Toxic culture is pervasive and a serious matter as the manifestation of these negative behavior patterns can have a long-term negative impact on an organization’s ability to thrive and succeed. Leadership is ultimately responsible for maintaining an organization that is affirming and trusting for the purpose of enhancing the organization’s ability to compete effectively in the market. 

Contact us at the Workforce Innovation Center – we can help.


About the Author:

Kevin Sansberry

Dr. Kevin Sansberry, MBA, SPHR
Founder | KEVRA – The Culture Company

Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach whose inspiring work is driven by the need for evidence-based, inclusive, and equitable approaches to urgently and proactively transform and coach leaders, eradicating toxic behaviors that threaten profitability, innovation, and the overall wellbeing. Kevin is regularly sought after to speak, consult, and coach organizations around the world related to his expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance, centered on employee wellbeing.

Kevin has experience in various settings such as professional sports including the MLB, higher education, nonprofits, sales, and other large complex organizations. He is also the founder of KEVRA Consulting, a firm that utilized research-based solutions to address organizational challenges such as inclusion, equity, and belonging, HR strategy, leadership coaching, and development.

Kevin earned his doctorate in business administration from The University of Missouri-St. Louis where he focused on the impact of abusive supervision on organizational culture/climate, and employee coping behaviors. Kevin received his MBA from The University of Missouri-Kansas City with an emphasis in leadership & change in human systems and general management and his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Central Missouri.