26 September 2023

Reading the signs of a virtual toxic culture

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In a virtual working environment, an organisation’s descent into a toxic culture is harder to pinpoint. Lisa Earle McLeod* has some tips on how it can be done.

The traditional signs of a toxic in-person culture are fairly obvious.

It’s the long faces, snide remarks, groups of people huddled around the water cooler, who immediately stop speaking when the boss walks in.

In the current virtual world, toxicity is harder to pick up.

It sits beneath the surface of Zoom fatigue and inbox overload. It’s less obvious, yet just as dangerous.

As many organisations are settling into indefinite virtual work, being aware of the warning signs is an imperative.

Even if you you’re adopting the hybrid model (a mix of in-person and remote) or you’re going back into the office full time, you will still have colleagues, vendors, and clients who will continue to work remotely.

Here are four signs that a remote culture is leaning towards toxic and needs help.

More is said in the chat than in the actual meeting

Sometimes this happens because meetings are too big.

Other times, sidebar conversations happen live-time because a team is lacking psychological safety.

When there is consistently more said in Slack, Zoomchat, iMessage, etc. than the actual meeting, the dynamic can quickly snowball from unproductive to exclusionary.

Ghosting is acceptable, or even the norm

We notice ghosting less in a virtual environment, but the impact is just as consequential.

When someone is ghosted, either via unanswered email or (worse) ditched for a meeting, their engagement goes down.

Feeling a lack of support, like you can’t count on your colleagues, makes it nearly impossible to care deeply about the work.

You have to be online (just for the sake of being online)

A green online dot next to someone’s name does not indicate any form of productivity, engagement, or value.

Yet, as organisations shifted remotely, the green dot quickly became proof that someone was working.

Some roles require clear online time, like customer support. Others allow more flexibility.

When an organisation becomes baselessly obsessive over online time, they send a signal that employees cannot be trusted to manage themselves.

Higher performing organisations measure productivity by looking at work output, collaboration, and overall wellness.

Being kept in the loop on everything

One of our clients refers to this as the “FYI Waterfall.”

In a virtual environment, it’s easy to throw the entire organisation in the bcc field.

In an onslaught of FYI email, communication is much less thoughtful.

Messaging overload can descend quickly into confusion and burnout. To keep engagement high, communication must be pointed and thoughtful.

If you nodded along to the list above, it may be tempting to point the blame upward. Yet, in a virtual environment, it’s easier than ever to lead without formal authority.

You can move the needle on your organisational culture with intentional time management, clear communication, and modelling what a purpose-driven organisation looks like.

*Lisa Earle McLeod is the leadership expert best known for creating the popular business concept Noble Purpose. She is the author of Selling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose. She can be contacted at mcleodandmore.com.

This article first appeared at mcleodandmore.com.

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