8 steps to turning around a toxic IT culture

Despite greater emphasis on empathy and inclusivity, toxic behavior is still an issue for many IT organizations. And when toxicity takes root, friendliness, kindness, and basic civility quickly fall by the wayside, replaced by selfishness, harassment, and even outright emotional and physical abuse.

Identifying and neutralizing an emerging toxic IT culture before it can begin damaging team members, projects, and overall organization performance is every CIO’s responsibility. The following eight steps will help you prevent or root out cultural toxicity, keeping your department strong, united, and efficient.

1. Open a confidential pathway

Create a communication channel that allows IT team members to direct their concerns to the CIO anonymously and outside of the normal hierarchical reporting chain.

In a healthy enterprise environment, each manager is committed to the success of everyone within their organization. “Concerns from all employees are communicated upward through the reporting structure to the appropriate level for resolution,” says Andy Sealock, a senior partner at digital at business advisory firm West Monroe. “In a toxic IT culture, you can’t always count on that happening, since the management reporting chain might be part of the problem and, therefore, cannot be part of the solution.” Direct anonymous communication informs the CIO that a problem might exist.

Sealock also advises conducting regularly scheduled anonymous team surveys, designed to reveal a budding toxic culture. The survey should include questions directly related to organizational culture, including morale, personal recognition, compensation, promotion decisions, management leadership quality, and an employees’ likelihood to remain with the organization. Sealock believes that such a survey is “a great way to identify culture issues and to track the effectiveness of remediation efforts to improve culture.”

2. Provide effective leadership and emphasize team goals

An IT leader can’t simply create a positive culture with the wave of a hand. Culture is a function of leadership execution. “Leading by example is the way to start a turnaround,” says Fredrik Hagstroem, CTO of Emergn, a digital business services firm.

A clear vision guides team direction. It’s like a compass that reliably points everyone in the correct direction. Even when things are complex or changing, having a goal helps everyone become aligned, Hagstroem says. “Good leadership that drives collaboration and trust will be evident in frequent use of collective and inclusive pronouns, such as ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘ours’ — meaning everyone in the company.”

Strong leadership ensures that vision, strategy, and goals aren’t just clearly understood, but attractive and motivating. “Leaders must demonstrate that collaboration and contributions to common goals are more important than individual performance,” Hagstroem says. He advises changing professional relationships from urging team members to reach personal objectives and responsibilities to achieving team goals. “Evaluating individuals’ performance in terms of impact to team goals is also an important pivot point,” he adds.

Most important of all is removing the fear of failure, Hagstroem says. “Each IT professional should have the ability to share their forward-thinking ideas with little risk of being made to feel inferior or wrong.”

3. Encourage friendly competition

While unhealthy competition often leads to a toxic IT culture, healthy competition can be a positive motivating force. “Encourage your team members to compete against each other in a healthy way by setting goals and providing rewards for meeting those goals,” suggests Boris Jabes, CEO of data integration platform provider Census.

Like all successful IT leaders, Jabes believes that it’s essential to foster a positive IT department environment. “This means creating an atmosphere where employees feel valued and appreciated,” he says. “You can do this by recognizing and rewarding employees for their good work, encouraging open communication, and providing opportunities for professional development.” Satisfaction and productivity are powerful toxic environment antidotes, Jabes adds.

4. Raise awareness

It’s impossible to eliminate a toxic culture without first acknowledging its existence. “Start talking about it,” advises Kimberley Tyler-Smith, a former McKinsey & Co. analyst who is now a strategist at career tech service company Resume Worded. “It’s essential that everyone knows what’s going on and that they understand how everyone else feels about it — especially if one group of employees seems to be more affected than others by the toxic environment.”

Team members need to feel safe when talking about what’s happening at work. “No one should feel like they can’t tell anyone else how they’re feeling without risking their careers — that can make things much worse,” Tyler-Smith says.

5. Encourage openness

Champion an environment in which team members feel free to share their mistakes with the understanding that they will be supported and helped to do better.

When there’s a free and open environment, people tend to feel safe and respected, says Thomas R. Harris, founder of The Exceptional Skills, a leadership training course provider. “They’re able to focus and work on making the vision happen instead of worrying about someone stabbing them in the back, or whether they will be supported by leadership.”

A staff that’s united and reaching toward specific goals can see how their efforts are leading to success. “It’s no longer ‘me versus you’ — it becomes ‘we’ working together,” Harris says. An open approach is generally effective because culture and team effectiveness comes from the top, he notes.

When leaders allow a toxic environment to fester, they will likely lose good people, Harris warns. The organization then becomes less efficient and productive. In a toxic setting, “people aren’t focused on the enterprise or its goals, but on themselves, protecting themselves, and making themselves look good,” he adds.

6. Promote collaboration

IT culture is likely to turn toxic when team members believe that it’s the best way to exert autonomy or authority. “They can say ‘no’ and feel in control,” says Aviv Ben-Yosef, head of Aviv Ben-Yosef Consulting and the author of The Tech Executive Operating System.

An effective approach to collaboration is immersing the organization with a teamwork culture in which all team members view their colleagues as peers, not rivals. “Everyone wants to feel that what they do means something,” Ben-Yosef says. “Give them a better way to achieve that goal by changing the culture and you will carve a new path of least resistance, one that fosters cooperation.”

7. Build trust

Building an open, collaborative environment requires a leader who is transparent and honest with team members. “Share information and be candid about the challenges your team is facing,” advises Leon Bierhals, CTO of WREI.org, an organization that distributes information related to women’s health, well-being, and empowerment.

Observe and listen to team members. “Take their concerns seriously and be open to their suggestions,” Bierhals suggests. Also reward team members for their efforts, both large and small. “Thank them for their contributions and give them recognition when they do a good job,” he suggests.

Bierhals says that exhibiting trust shows team members that management genuinely cares about them and, in the event a business or personal problem arises, is willing to work with them to address or resolve the issue. “It also demonstrates that you’re willing to put your faith in them,” he says. “It sends the message that you’re willing to work together to achieve common goals.”

8. Foster unity

Give team members the ability to freely communicate and innovate with each other, advises Tim Flower, vice president of Nexthink, a digital employee experience platform provider. Use the customary collaboration tools, such as Teams, Slack, and Zoom, then combine them with platform analytics to meet enterprise needs and allow multiple teams to work within the same view of information.

Flower suggests uniting teams by deploying compelling programs. “Turn the lights on to the unknown and give them challenges … versus just sending a mandate to ‘work smarter.’” He also recommends supporting collaboration with praise and encouragement. “Call out business results that would not have been achieved had it not been for the collaborative approach.”

IT Leadership, Staff Management