The strange thing about toxic cultures, is the inability of those within to see how bad things have really got. It normally takes an inflection point or disruptive external event to raise levels of awareness to the point of consciousness. Looking at the recent tribulations of the UK Labour party and the Australian cricket team, we can see perfect examples (in different ways) of the way that toxic cultures become all-encompassing in a blinding fog of self-delusion. We’ve seen similar situations play out in the banking sector and other industries, which I’ve written about before.
It raises the question whether there is anything that can be done to prevent the slow slip towards implosion, or if a turbulent outcome is inevitable. What can leaders do to intervene?
Recognise it starts small – recognising small behavioural changes and calling them out is crucial to preventing the situation getting worse. Tolerance to bad cultural epithets increases over time unless they’re nipped in the bud.
Don’t explain away – it is very easy to explain things away, even when they get to seemingly gargantuan proportions. We’re just highly competitive, we have an overarching will to win, others are just jealous, they’re trying to drag us down, we know the real truth. And yes, you probably do but you won’t admit it.
Listen and be willing to hear – There are people who know that things are going the wrong way, there is seldom a lone bad apple or renegade group. People see and know, they just need to be given permission to talk and leaders need to listen and hear. If people think you’re just paying lip service, they won’t bother to risk the wrath and the pain.
Define your values and stick to them – The corridors of corporate power are littered with mission statements, values and charters which no-one knows and no-one applies in business decisions. Values in business are important, but only when they come off the poster and enter the psyche.
Look outside in – Don’t be afraid to ask someone else to take a regular look at your culture, behaviours and ethics. In business we are used to having people look at our accounts, our data and reports, our supply chain and other areas of our operation. So why not culture? An annual health check, by an independent third-party would go along way to holding yourselves to account.