How to get rid of a toxic culture

The dichotomy for senior management is that you don’t own the culture in the organisation yet through your actions (or inactions) you have the power to destroy it. By Colin Ellis. 

Nothing that’s toxic is good for you and yet, it’s something that seems to be tolerated in organisational culture all around the world. There’s a sense of hopelessness and that ‘that’s just what it is’ and then everyone carries on regardless and yet, there is another way. You can deal with the toxicity and create something that is good for staff and that creates a positive environment of success.

How toxic culture can affect performance

Toxicity in organisations is a result of a working culture that has stagnated. In stagnant cultures there are no consequences for poor behaviour or poor performance, people avoid anything outside their comfort zone, staff wear headphones that block culture out, goals are unclear and feedback is non-existent.

These kinds of cultures will not only miss their targets, but they also run the risk of becoming irrelevant. In the private sector this leads to a loss of market share, whilst in the public sector, departments are merged or ‘retired’ in complicated restructures.

According to Gallup, these stagnant cultures cost US businesses alone more than US$500 billion in lost productivity every year because it is mostly tolerated by senior management.

Research conducted by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwest University found that only one in 20 employees were fired for exhibiting behaviour considered to be toxic.

By ignoring people who behave in a way that’s adjunct from what the organisation needs to be successful, management are complicit in the reduction of morale, engagement and productivity. 

As Thich Nhat Hanh said in his book The Art of Living: “Just as an acidic cloud produces acid rain, so will the energy of anger, fear, blaming or discrimination produce a toxic environment for ourselves and others.”

Yet, with some definition, courage and discipline, this kind of behaviour can be addressed and an environment of belonging, value creation, flexibility and celebration can be created in its place.

Culture change isn’t hard

Most organisations will approach any kind of cultural evolution activity with the mantra ‘culture change is hard’. When in reality, they have never done it properly. They’ll simply pick what they perceive to be a culture change ‘project’ or copy what others are doing and hope that things change. Some examples of quick-fix culture change activities include going open-plan; implementing a new method e.g. agile, PRINCE2, Six Sigma, etc.; changing the operating model; restructuring or re-branding.

Of course, it’s not that any of these things are necessarily wrong, it’s just that in isolation none of them will lift engagement of employees or change the culture.

Neither will employing a firm of consultants to define the culture on the behalf of its management or employees.

This is the dichotomy for senior management. They don’t own the culture and yet through their actions (or inactions) they have the power to destroy it. 

What they need to ensure is that they only undertake activity that puts the definition of culture into the hands of those that own it and then hold them accountable to what they’ve agreed.

By taking this approach, senior management are acknowledging the feedback from employees and providing them with the inspiration, motivation, time and resources to define it, and get it right, themselves.

This is something the great organisation cultures from around the world do. As Patty McCord – former chief talent officer at Netflix – said in her book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, “A company’s job isn’t to empower people; it’s to remind people that they walk in the door with power and to create the conditions for them to exercise it.” 

From toxic to vibrant

In order to get rid of toxic cultures, senior managers have to invest time and money and allow staff to define how they’ll communicate, collaborate and innovate around a core set of values and an aspirational vision statement aligned to the strategic intent of the organisation.

Central to achieving this is the agreement on a core set of behaviours from which the staff can hold each other to account to ensure that the vibrant culture that they’ve defined can be maintained through challenging periods. 

It’s vital that organisations which have identified their culture as being toxic, take meaningful action. Simply waiting it out and hoping that it corrects itself is not an option.

To get rid of a toxic culture, the staff have to define what vibrant looks like and then hold themselves to account to it.   M

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 (Wiley $29.95) has seen him travel all over the world to help organisations transform the way they get things done. 

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