4 Tips for Creating a Healthy Culture

A healthy culture will naturally repel toxic people, and vice versa.

Guess what’s impacting your leadership more thank you think?


Specifically, the culture you’re creating as a leader.

Often I hear leaders complain about the toxic people they have in their organization (staff, customers, volunteers, attendees). To be sure, that happens.

But if you always have toxic people in your culture, or you have a lot of toxic people in your culture, the problem may not be them nearly as much as the problem is your culture.

Here’s the truth about culture.

Create a healthy culture and toxic people will leave.

Let your culture go flat or get toxic, and the healthy people will depart.

Why? Because:

A healthy culture spits out toxic people.

A toxic culture spits out healthy people.

Here’s the surprise. No one gets kicked out. They just leave when they can’t get traction or validation.

This truth runs deeper than you realize.

I agree that people who leave organizations quit their boss more than they quit their job. But people also quit cultures. Healthy people quit unhealthy cultures. And unhealthy people quit healthy cultures.

As a result, the staff, volunteer and overall culture you create as a leader has an awful lot to do with the long-term success or failure of your organization.

Pick whatever cultural values you want, but fundamentally, your culture will either be healthy or slide into unhealthy or toxic.

You either decide to create an organization in which healthy people thrive, or you experience the inevitable slide into malaise, unhealthiness or toxicity. That’s just how human nature works.

You may be wondering what the difference is between an unhealthy person and a toxic person. While there are nuances, here’s the bottom line: Unhealthy people want to get better. Toxic people don’t.

Your organization should always have room for unhealthy people on the road to recovery. Toxic people who resist all efforts to help are a whole other thing. And as Henry Cloud argues, you really don’t need to keep them around, unless you want them to destroy everything.

So what do you do about all this?

If you want to create a stellar organizational culture that attracts and keeps healthy people, here are four keys:

1. Focus on Your Personal Health.

I have been in senior leadership for over two decades. As much as I don’t want to admit it, it’s still true: My organization will only ever be as healthy as I am.

Ditto for you. Fight it all you want, but your organization will only ever be as healthy as you are as the leader.

Even if you’re not the senior leader, that’s true of the team you lead, the department you run, or the crew you manage. The health of the leader tends to be the health of the team.

I think of the health of a leader in five categories:

• Spiritual
• Emotional
• Relational
• Physical
• Financial

While health in each category is nuanced (I write about the personal health of a leader in detail in my best selling book, Didn’t See It Coming), one thing is true: Health in each category means margin in each category.

A healthy leader has a fairly full spiritual, emotional, relational and physical tank. They’re not exhausted all the time, or constantly irritable, or so consumed with giving to others that they’re almost bankrupt themselves.

You may wonder what being financially healthy looks like. It’s simple: Living within your means. There are leaders who make $30,000 a year who have a bit of money in the bank and leaders who make $130,000 who are always strapped and out of money. When your personal financial situation causes you stress, that stress just leaks out all over the place.

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Healthy leaders tend to lead healthy organizations because they end with reserves to help others get healthy, and they also have a lower tolerance for toxicity.

Finally, healthy people are attracted to healthy leaders.

2. Invest in People, Not Just Results.

I’m naturally a results person.

But I’ve also come to realize this: that results-driven leaders focus over what they can get from their team. Healthy leaders obsess over what they can do for their team.

Strangely, if all you think about is what you can get from your team, you always end up with diminishing returns. People feel used, and they eventually lose heart, start going through the motions or leave.

But if you focus on what you can do for your team, people lean in and give you way more than you imagined.

The longer I lead, the more I realize that if you have competent people, the best thing you can do is care about the team as people.

I’ve found a few things really help:

• Ask how they’re doing, not just what they’re doing. People want to know that you care.
• Invest in their growth and development.
– Do off-sites together.
– Take them to conferences, events and seminars.
– Invest in courses, books and resources that grow them and their skill set.
– Get them coaching and counseling as needed.
• Give them what they need to do the job. Everything from slow computers, to bad wifi, to a crappy work environment all demotivate people and create unnecessary barriers. Cheap is always more expensive in the long run anyway.

If you have little budget, start with free. There are literally hundreds of thousands of free articles, e-books, podcasts and courses you can do together to grow as leaders. I have a Leadership Podcast that’s free and comes with free show notes and transcripts, and I have free courses as well (select what your biggest leadership challenge is here and you’re in.)

Bottom line? Create the kind of environment where the people working for you become better people, not just employees. Grow them, not just their skills.

When your team grows personally, your progress grows exponentially.

3. Get Rid of Us vs. Them Thinking.

In any health organization or church, there’s no us and them, there’s only we.

If you have multiple locations, it’s easy to talk about “those guys.” There’s no “those guys.” They’re you.

Ditto with departments, divisions, management, leadership team … whatever. As soon as someone begins to say that “they” won’t let us or “they” want something different, the end is near.

In a really unhealthy culture, organizations blame their customers or members.

They’re so demanding.

They just don’t get it.

How can they be so dumb?

Seriously—the very people you’re trying to serve/reach/encourage/engage are the brunt of your frustrations?

Trust me, as a leader, I would love to live in a world where I could blame people for everything. And on the inside, I still want to.

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But I also know that ultimately, I’m responsible for everything I don’t like in our organization because I’m the leader.

That doesn’t mean you ignore real problems or put lip gloss over all the problems you encounter as a leader.

I love how Craig Groeschel frames it. When there’s a genuine problem that needs to be fixed, be that with teams, divisions, locations, departments or the people you serve, instead of blaming them, say:

• We haven’t led them to be less demanding.

• I haven’t been clear enough for them to understand the situation, so let me work harder.

• I have to figure out what the real problem is and solve it.

If you eliminate “they” and “them” from your leadership vocabulary and replace it with “I’ or “we” great things start to happen.

• First, you take responsibility. If you’re the leader, you’re responsible.

• Second, your heart shifts. You no longer see others as the problem; you realize your job is to serve and help them.

• Third, you’ll likely solve the problem.

Blame is the opposite of responsibility. When you stop blaming and making excuses, you start making progress, because you can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.

4. Create Firm Boundaries.

Once you have a healthier organization, the key is to stay healthy at the top—at the senior leadership levels.

If you find yourself getting unhealthy, call it out and seek help. If someone else on the team gets into a bad season, come alongside them and see if they want to get well. If they do, embrace them and stand behind them. If they don’t, don’t let their negativity infect your organization.

And when you spot a toxic person, don’t let them step in. Don’t hire them. Don’t let them serve or volunteer. If they’re really toxic, you may not want them even in a group.

Before you push back, remember, the distinction between an unhealthy person and a toxic person is the desire to get well. If someone has no desire to get well, you won’t be able to help them.

Don’t let the ill-health of one person destroy the health of your team.

With a firm boundary in place, usually toxic people give up and go elsewhere. And in a healthy culture on the rare occasion you need to ask them to, that one awkward conversation and firm boundary is completely worth it—for them and for you.


While there’s a lot more to creating a healthy culture, I find that even focusing on these three things produces huge gains.

First, when the culture is healthy, unhealthy people who want to get well find that they do.

Because so many workplaces have an unhealthy culture—and so many families do as well—people first are startled by health, but eventually, a healthy organization becomes a magnet for people who get healthy or want to get well.

And for toxic people? Well, because they can’t seem to get a toe-hold, and the culture won’t change to meet their dysfunction, they move on looking for less healthy places to belong to.

This virtuous cycle will keep going as long as you stay healthy as a leader and surround yourself with a healthy, growing team.

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This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com.