Why Toxic Cultures Require Disinfectant And How To Do It

By Colin D Ellis|29-05-2021 | 1 Min Read

Workplace culture and practices have, once again, been heavily present in the news. To many, the revelations from Australia’s Parliament House are merely a reminder that appalling behavior from some is still tolerated and the lives of humans are ruined as a consequence.

What has been reported so far is a result of the actions of a few courageous people who spoke out on the behavior that they’ve been subjected to and further reviews will almost certainly reveal other equally serious issues.

Faced with allegations such as this, organizations and their leaders have two options:

  1. Try to sweep it all under the carpet, explain away the behavior and hope that someone else becomes front page news to replace them;
  2. Take action against the individuals involved and invest in systemic behavior and culture change.

The second one is perceived as ‘hard’ to do, so organizations almost always opt for number one. Over the years, these have included companies such as Enron, Volkswagen, Uber and more closely to home AMP and QBE.

Combatant (or ‘toxic’) cultures are overseen by people for whom power is everything and who will use hours worked or results gained as a badge of honor. People in these cultures are constantly busy (as opposed to productive), present no singular view of priorities, take unnecessary risks and think that everyone else should change but them.

This toxicity generates fear, anxiety, stress and can lead to serious issues such as harassment, bullying, depression and in some instances thoughts of harm and suicide. Very little good happens in toxic cultures.

Make no mistake, it is the leaders of these organizations that allow this toxicity to flourish under their watch and yet, if they’re prepared to take meaningful and sustained action, they could change the dynamic relatively quickly and replace the culture of fear and loathing with one of happiness and belonging.

To get there requires disinfection, humility, a good pair of ears, inclusive activity and consistency. Here’s how to replace toxicity with vibrancy:

  1. Sanitize the situation: Dealing with poor performance is the only place to start. As the old adage goes, you’re only as good as the behavior you choose to walk past. For too long the victims of bullying and harassment have had to go to extraordinary lengths to prove their stories rather than being believed from day one. Confidential hotlines or message systems in which people can report instances of poor behavior or performance provide a start point for organizations looking to expose working practices that run contrary to their values. Better still, leaders could actively listen to the things that staff are telling them every day with regards to the way that emotions are openly displayed, and address them as they arise. 
  2. Apologize and commit to change: Apologies are only ever taken seriously when there is a commitment to behavior change. When the commitment is to one of endless reviews in the hope that the issues will go away, staff will immediately lose heart that their feedback will be dealt with in a meaningful way. Leaders have to be accountable, stand up and say sorry for overseeing toxic environments then lay out their solutions for change. This will include removing those people who have displayed toxic tendencies. Many will try to do this via a payout or a ‘restructure’ which sends completely the wrong message and demonstrates that the leadership team doesn’t have the stomach for any future events.
  3. Redefine the status quo: Once the toxic people have been removed and leaders have committed to behavior change, then all staff must be involved in defining the new cultural conditions. This is not the responsibility of the leadership team, a firm of consultants or a design agency. The culture belongs to everyone within the organization, so everyone (or representatives of everyone) need to be involved in the redefinition process. What are the behavioral expectations of staff and what do these mean in practice? How will people work together to achieve the goals that the business has? And how will they make time for new ideas or else challenge inefficient practices? When the staff are involved in the redefinition of the ‘way we do things around here’ it encourages accountability in everyone for the day-to-day behaviors and interactions.

Of course, option two requires effort, time and money and requires senior leaders to role model what’s expected of them every single day of the week. If they’re not prepared to be consistent in this regard, then boards of directors need to replace them with people who are. I am constantly being asked to brief boards on how to do culture well and it’s a sign that organizations are starting to take culture seriously, however, there’s still a very long way to go.

What are you doing to disinfect your toxic culture?

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Colin D Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author. His latest book ‘Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work’ has seen him travel all over the world to help organisations transform the way they get things done.
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