10 Signs You Might Be Leading a Toxic Organization
I’m targeting nonprofit Board Volunteers with this article. However, anyone can read it. I’m really not that controlling. The “10 Signs” are good for anyone in a business or nonprofit to understand and be able to identify. They are also helpful if you are considering joining a Board.
As a Board Volunteer, you have many responsibilities to the agency you are leading. One factor frequently overlooked is your role in culture and organizational effectiveness. This is often left to the Executive or CEO. When the leader creates a positive, functional environment, there isn’t a need for the Board to give it any attention. Problems arise when the Exec or CEO has not created a positive culture and dysfunction begins to take over.
It can be difficult for volunteers to know when things are “off.” The Executive Director or CEO may be unaware of the toxic environment they have created. Or, if they are aware, they certainly are not going to tell the Board of Directors about it. That’s why it’s important to understand what to look for. As you read this list, note which indicators sound familiar.
10 Signs of a Toxic Organization
#1 Poor Staff Retention
Staff are leaving. A lot. They may say it’s for one reason or another, but we all know that staff do not leave jobs, they leave managers. It’s also a bad sign if there are constant layoffs or firings. This indicates the lack of a strategic plan or vision.
#2 Morale is Low
There is a lack of motivation. Staff are just “punching the clock”. This is especially disappointing in the nonprofit sector. Staff are drawn to an organization’s mission or cause. When there is poor leadership or a toxic environment, even the most passionate employee becomes dispirited. Additionally, while not the cause, low morale is often exasperated by years with no staff raises.
#3 Poor Communication
There are constant changes in communication, or it’s unnecessarily vague. Staff are confused. Often leaders will “talk out of both sides of their mouths”. For example, in one breath they tell you how great everything is, and in the next one they tell you how they need you to raise more money because of the desperate state of the agency.
#4 Cliques, Exclusions, and Gossipy Behavior
It seems like there’s an “in” group and an “out” group. There is an emphasis on who is considered important in the organization vs. who is not. Staff are talked about in a negative and unprofessional way. Private conversations become known by everyone.
#5 Supervisors are Ill Prepared to Do Their Job
Any boss who uses tactics such as intimidation, humiliation, playing favorites, false promises, micromanaging, not communicating, unsupportive behavior, or any of the many other outdated and authoritarian methods, should not be allowed to lead people. Supervising staff is a skill and it needs to be developed and nurtured, like any other skill. You can read more about this topic here and here.
#6 There is No Work-Life Balance
Sometimes staff have to put in long hours, including evenings and weekends. This is common in the nonprofit sector. Especially when delivering programs or events. However, when this is the constant, normal expectation, it’s unhealthy for the employees and for the organization.
#7 Constant Drama
There’s always an issue or crisis to solve. Problem solving is inconsistent and may seem random. What could be minor disagreements escalate and are blown out of proportion. Relationship issues are not managed professionally.
#8 Dysfunction Reigns
There’s a lack of trust among staff and an avoidance of accountability. Decisions are not made based on what is best for the organization. They revolve around benefiting a few individuals. Transparency is lacking. Often despite the leader believing they are being very transparent.
#9 Staff are “Kept In Their Place”
As a volunteer you may have limited contact with anyone other than the leader(s). Interactions between Volunteers and Staff are controlled or non-existent. Staff have very little authority.
#10 The Organization Lacks Mission, Vision, and Values
This is not to say that these statements aren’t written down somewhere. This means that they are absent from decision making, strategic discussions, and staffing practices.
These three elements should drive the work of the organization and should be present at every meeting and in every key discussion. They need to be more than words on a wall. They need to carry the organization forward and serve as the compass for the work you do.
If any of this resonates with you, I suggest you share these “10 Signs” with your fellow Board Members. Here’s a pretty version you can print and share. Ask around to find out if anyone else sees reason to be concerned. If so, it is your duty to take action. You owe it to the organization you are serving. The community and your constituents deserve the best possible version of your agency. Help make sure they are getting it.
Need help evaluating your organization’s culture? Or do you already know you have issues to address. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free 30-minute consultation to discuss how I can help you create a culture that will grow your organization and increase your impact!
Kim is a mom, wife, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of small businesses and nonprofits.