Toxic cultures are as insidious as they are entrenched, with deeply entangled root systems. If left unchecked, or only mitigated with superficial changes, the damage wrought can bring down the entire house. Salvaging the house means the right decision might have be the tough decision: To uproot the toxic old guard and start afresh with a team aligned to new values and purpose.
However, the reality of implementing effective transformational change is a complex procedure. Insight, expertise and time are needed.
Despite this there is also an urgency to correcting a toxic culture. With so much disruption in every market there is too much at stake to suffer an under-performing status quo. Pioneers Uber forged a disruptive pathway; proving to the Taxi industry that an indifferent culture is unsustainable for organisations looking to survive in a new business reality. Ironically, Uber has also demonstrated that a toxic culture is neither inherent to established businesses nor industry-specific – and costs more than money.
So, what does a toxic culture look like?
To varying degrees it’s high staff turn-over, low productivity, failed initiatives, it’s excuses, absenteeism, increased workcover claims, and it’s decreasing profits and negative growth. It’s bullying, blaming, harassment, disengagement, it’s a failure to attract great talent and it’s an absence of values and purpose that creates a work environment that no one want’s to be part of – least of all your customers.
Where to start?
You start at the top . Regardless whether you’re an SME or a multinational, leaders are custodians of your organisational culture. However, leadership is much more than how those in positions of influence behave. As defined in ‘Destructive leadership: The critique on leader-centric perspectives and the move toward a more holistic definition’,
‘Leadership is a dynamic, co-creational process between leaders, followers, and environments, the product of which contributes to group and organisational outcomes.’
Replacing a few ‘ineffective’ leaders might invigorate a company in the short-term, but much like tangled root systems under a house, culture is complex and runs deep. You can’t make fundamental cultural changes until you identify, remove, or retrain those affiliated with, or ensnared by, poor leadership.
Where to find the toxic?
Brad Banducci, CEO of Woolworths and Guy Russo, Group CEO of Kmart and Target are two tried, tested and proven transformational advocates who evangelise looking-under-the-hood. Observing, talking and listening to your frontline will tell you more than weeks of executive feedback.
Some say that within a toxic culture, any executive conversations about existing problems are nullified by their own feedback loop. Whether this is because executives are skilled in self-preservation, or that the true intel on what’s really going on isn’t getting to them, is moot point. The net result is the same; you won’t get the full story.
If you have other tools like employee surveys and exit interviews to review, use them to form an accurate, composite picture.
Bad apples & bruised fruit
As mentioned earlier, bad leaders can’t act alone. Toxic cultures permeate through managerial ranks and down the line via colluders and conformers. The former either share values of the toxic leader or they rally to power. The latter are either hierarchically inclined, submissive or subdued – the ‘bruised fruit’.
Identifying these individuals is essential to affecting long-lasting cultural change.
You also need to identify your allies. Those who want to and are capable of performing better under more productive leadership (some of these might be former colluders and conformers). Non-confrontationally challenge them on how they view the company and their role within it. Ask them about their own values and purpose. Those who don’t belong there will know it and quite often will opt out on their own.
Tenure is not a get-out-of-jail free card, nor is an extremely high skill set. A combination of attitude and aptitude are the hallmarks of a forward-thinking, values-based culture.
Paving the way
No one comes to work to do a bad job and everyone involved in an organisation has something at stake. It is vital to have a well-defined strategy that everyone understands. If you want to get everyone on board it’s important to be uncompromisingly clear, consistent and deliberate in the implementation of change.
Once they are on board, maintaining change brings another set of challenges.
When you’ve set firm your values and purpose and your strategy is clear and understood, yo’uve retrained your best people and brought in new blood, you then need to ensure everyone has a voice, that they are ‘playing in position’ with autonomy and accountability. It is only with a bone-deep understanding of new values and the expectations surrounding them that you will stay the course.
Moving forward your remit is to hire for cultural fit based on these values and purpose. If you don’t have a strong HR department, or it’s been rocked by changes and they need assistance, enable them. Hire talent specialists from outside the organisation. It’s pointless to go to so much effort to have it undone with false-economy thinking.
New energy and new vitality at the top will flow down as surely as it flows up. Your teams will be performing at optimal levels, you will be empowering future leaders from within your own organisation, and you’ll retain and attract the top talent in your sector.
A productive culture delivers growth, innovation and profit. Clean up your toxic culture and you’ll have happier teams, happier customers and for publicly listed companies, happier shareholders to benefit your company, your people and your own professional progress.
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