One of the most taboo leadership topics of today is toxic workplace cultures. Both the devastating impact they have on people, as well as the reputational and commercial damage they do to companies.
Toxic workplaces are highly dysfunctional cultures where behaviours such as bullying, exclusion, blame, manipulation, micro-management and selfishness are rife. Where negativity, abuse of power, poor communication and disrespect are prevalent.
The impact on people is profound. These cultures create a feeling of lack of safety, security and appreciation. Collaboration is near impossible to foster, productivity is low, loyalty is eroded and employees’ physical and mental wellbeing suffers. This is irrespective of where employees are working from, remote and hybrid working environments and behaviours also have their own cultures.
Employees need environments that are supportive, inclusive and safe. Where they feel empowered, happy and valued. Where it’s OK to show vulnerability and authenticity. So they are able to successfully thrive both personally and professionally and in turn, the company does too.
Throughout my career I have spent over 20 years in blue-chip Corporates in the UK and Middle East. I have held senior leadership and Executive roles. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve responded by being a driving force behind sustainable cultural change within every team I have worked in. Regardless of my level or position. Why? Because I care and I take my responsibility as a leader seriously.
I read conversations every week on this very platform about overcoming adversity in the workplace, events are listed tackling toxic cultures whilst clients come to me seeking a way out of them.
If we know that people and culture are at the heart of the success of any organisation then why are so many companies struggling with this still?
Positive team culture is critical now more than ever before
Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index says that 41% of people are likely to consider leaving their job in the next year. People are feeling empowered to make a change and are taking action by navigating out of companies and jobs that are not in alignment with them or their values. Whether the Great Resignation is over is still to be seen but the stats today are still alarming with vacancies at an all-time high March-May 2022 according to the Office Of National Statistics.
Workplace culture is key for young job seekers too. The 2019 Deloitte Millenials Study revealed that Millenials and Gen Zs place a company’s values, purpose and the development support they will receive as critical when choosing a company. When that company fails to live up to expectations, they have no hesitation in walking away.
So if this challenge is so well known then why aren’t companies doing more about it?
The bottom line is that we are not moving fast enough to turn the tide on improving workplace cultures, even though employees are stating clearly that this is more important to them than ever before.
The question is, why not?
An opportunity to thrive and grow
It can be difficult or even impossible for employees to feel that they are able to speak up when in a toxic workplace culture. Primarily due to fear and/or self-preservation - of being penalised for speaking out, overwhelm - another thing to have to think about on top of the day job, and lack of education and support – some simply don’t know how to approach making a change.
Healthy cultures and conscious management styles are rooted in empathy, integrity, inclusiveness, trust and vision amongst other positive traits. Cultures that make it OK, truly OK, for someone to be their fullest and most authentic self, which includes knowing they can always express how they feel, are those companies that will thrive and grow.
Top workplace surveys such as Great Place to Work matter to people when job seeking however it is only once someone is within that culture that they can and will experience it for themselves. So it’s critical that the attributes these companies are being revered for are held to the highest standard and account on the ground, every day or they risk losing people for not walking the talk.
Leaders’ behaviours are crucial
By definition, toxic in this context means ‘very harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way’.
You may have heard leaders say things like “bring the real you to work” or “be your authentic self.” For this to be truly impactful it needs to be backed up by action. How are they cultivating cultures and environments that reinforce this? Psychological safety is key to high performing teams and cultures that are built on integrity, trust and compassion.
It simply doesn’t work when the same leaders then overload their people with work leaking into their personal time. Or say they need to be like someone else to get ahead. Or belittle them in a meeting. Or exclude them by creating and willingly participating in cliques.
Examples of toxic cultures include: bullying, discrimination, disrespect, blame, fuelling fear of failure, lack of trust, overly hierarchical, excessive expectations, lack of recognition and appreciation, gossip, high absenteeism, high attrition, low morale, low employee engagement scores/completion rates, no respect for the need for balance, ignoring wellbeing needs, denying people a voice, micro-management, creating cliques, and so on.
The CIPD’s 2022 Health and Wellbeing at Work survey report found that ‘management style’ is a main cause of work-related stress. Together with the charity Mind, the CIPD has published a Mental Health Guide For Managers to improve support for those experiencing stress and mental ill health issues and help prevent poor psychological wellbeing in the first place. These are the types of resources and guidance that are deeply needed to help leaders and line managers to develop a deeper understanding of how to develop healthy workplace cultures.
The saying goes “people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers” so what can companies do to help people to better understand their style and gain the support they need to grow and develop as empathetic leaders?
They must commit to investing in leadership training and development to help current and future leaders to be the best they can be. It is not uncommon for someone to be promoted to a manager position because they are functionally good at their job, but this does not mean they automatically know how to be a brilliant people manager. If leaders lack the training and mentoring to thrive in their roles, and empower others to also thrive and grow, what chance do they really have?
It doesn’t matter what size the company is, culture matters.
It would be easy to hide behind a belief that everything is fine because that’s the way it’s always been. What if you looked at your culture through fresh eyes, what would you notice? Perhaps you are new into a company or a role and can see exactly what needs to change. How will you approach this? Either way, will you take responsibility to be a part of the change or is your expectation that it is someone else’s job? By default, this expectation often falls to HR departments, however it is my strong belief and experience that it is the responsibility of everyone in the organisation, at every level, to drive cultural change. Both within their teams and by taking personal responsibility for their own behaviours and actions.
It's a common misconception that toxic workplaces mainly occur in big corporates only. It doesn’t matter what size the company is, culture matters.
So who needs to lead this change and how?
Executive leadership teams need to proactively seek the ongoing education, inspiration and support to know, be and do better.
KPIs and goals are necessary to reflect the systemic change that needs to happen e.g. implementing a social impact strategy and measurement criteria focused on people.
Anonymous feedback services such as surveys, whistleblower protection, incident reporting for unacceptable behaviours for which there should be zero tolerance.
Encouraging participation in employee people networks (such as DE&I, wellbeing, parents and carers, LGBTQ+, women’s networks and more) which are critical when embedding cultural change from within the organisations. Executive sponsorship of these networks is needed showing they matter right at the top.
Line manager coaching and mentoring training to feel empowered and best equipped to successfully lead positive change.
Onboarding and integrating people into teams with a positive, inclusive experience.
Educate and make available mental health and wellbeing support resources to all employees.
Create regular open and trusted conversations with employees; individuals and groups.
Change starts from within
I want to be a part of the solution, not the problem. I’m a changemaker, driven by a purpose to make this world a better place in whatever way I can. I’ve supported many leaders, managers and teams with coaching and mentoring throughout my career. Most of these people are desperately trying to navigate their way through a toxic environment, seeking something better. In early 2021 I founded my own coaching and mentoring business to dedicate myself to helping other leaders and teams to be empowered and make the changes in their own careers and those around them that are so desperately needed.
The breadth of my experience has shown me that whilst there is much work to be done still to turn the tide on toxic workplace cultures, positive change is on the way. Enlightened Executive teams are setting intentions to improve employee happiness and to retain talented leaders who are demanding more positive cultures. Companies who choose to not follow through with action on those good intentions, or worse choose to ignore the problems altogether, simply won’t be able to attract or hold on to talented people.
Toxic cultures can be a thing of the past with the dedication and willingness to make a change.
Compassion, vision, support, structures and clear expectations are key to embedding a healthy and thriving culture.
Conscious leadership behaviours and positive role modelling are central to positive workplace cultures.
Organisations who empower and support their employees to lead with authenticity, consciousness, emotional and social intelligence will see the greatest change.
When we are lit up by a purpose and in our personal power, we help others to find their light and their power. The ripple effect of this is how change happens. One person at a time, one day at a time. How can you best support yourself and others around you? Are you part of the problem or the solution? What do you choose?
It starts with you.