Toxic cultures and ticking time bombs

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.

Cultures of permission

I’ve had the honour to work in a range of different organisations, in different sectors, to see and support teams that operate both successfully and…well, let’s call it sub optimally. And in every organisation I’ve worked in, at one point or another, I’ve seen teams operating in a culture of permission.

There’s many a definition of a  culture of permission, but for the sake of argument, let’s call it “an organisational system where people have given up their work based autonomy (either consciously or subconsciously) and choose to respond instead to instruction and direction”.

It’s important to separate this from an authoritarian culture where permission is explicitly required – we’ve all worked for leaders in teams that have an inherent need to control and pass everything through a system of sign off and approval. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Cultures of permission fascinate me, particularly the disconnect that is often witnessed between espoused desire and actual contribution. Employees and line managers will talk about the desire to change things, or the desire for people to take action and contribute more and yet the status quo persists.

If only people would take a bit more responsibility
If only we were allowed to take more responsibility

At the heart of this is often organisational memory. Something or someone at some point in time has caused this stasis and the disconnect between belief and action forces the team into a form of vicious circle. The manager becomes more and more hands on and more directive in order to try to get things moving and inadvertently reinforces the learned helplessness.

Ultimately the answer is not to do, but to coach. To support and encourage a new behavioural system and new way of working that align more closely with desired intent. That of course takes time and courage, recognising that not everything will immediately go according to plan.

They say if you want something done, give it to someone busy. That’s an alluring thought, but in a culture of permission one that has to be avoided at all cost. Encouraging and allowing everyone to step up is critical to breaking the vicious cycle that exists.

It can happen anywhere

Watching the allegation of sexual harassment at Westminster unfold, fills me with a sense of despair. Only three weeks ago I was writing that dignity wasn’t optional in relation to the Hollywood revelations and now not a day goes by without allegations being made against another man in power.

One of the most fascinating aspects (if fascinating can ever be an appropriate term in this context) is the reaction of onlookers to the various allegations. As those accused provide the justifications for their actions or denials, others look on and pass judgment. Social media is full of commentary and the mainstream media provides opportunity for others to provide their analysis.

More than once I’ve read the phrase, “witch hunt” and I’m desperate to ask, “by whom?” and “for the sake of what?”. But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is the political lens that is being put on the allegations by many of those watching events unfold. Believing the stories of those that we agree with, or are like us, versus disbelieving those that aren’t alike.

At the heart of this is one of the biggest reasons that cultures permit behaviours to become entrenched that are unacceptable to the independent eye. When we choose to believe those that we like, trust or associate with because of that association and we do not base our assessment on fact, then we run the risk of allowing the system to get out of control.

That’s why our role as leaders has to be to bring an independent and rational approach to any type of allegation or complaint that is brought to our attention. That’s why we have to rise above relationships and look simply at the information that is presented before us. That’s why we have to be willing to make decisions that break a system as well as to strive to remake it.

In-group and out-group cognitive biases are pervasive in cultures that go wrong. “They’re all like that”, “they’re all at it”, but “we’re not like that” and “we’re different”. These biases prevent us from seeing the glaringly obvious, but also allow us to re-interpret the actions that we see and prevent us from taking the actions that we would otherwise call on others to take.

Ultimately, and sadly, issues like sexual harassment and bullying don’t understand organisational boundaries, they don’t understand political boundaries. They are as likely to happen in one place as another unless we put in the systems and interventions in place to try to minimise the occurrence. And that starts with recognising that when an issue is raised we need to be open, thoughtful and balanced in our approach.

When corporate culture goes bad

I’ve watched the developments at Ryanair unfold with a combination of incredulity and interest – I have to admit that it isn’t a company I’ve historically had a lot of time for and I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid using their services. The management of their recent issues, however, seems to have taken bad people management to a new, low-level.

If you don’t know the story, on 16 September they announced that they were going to be cancelling about 40-50 flights per day for a period of six weeks to “improve punctuality”, however, they weren’t (couldn’t?) going to tell people which flights in advance. The following day they added to this that they’d, “messed up” the holiday schedules of pilots as a result of changing the holiday year from financial to calendar year.

Then the stories started emerging of a pilot shortage which the company denied (although Norwegian Air say they’ve recruited 140 pilots from Ryanair this year and another airline who hired 40 pilots said 32 came from Ryanair). Instead the company offered their existing pilots a one-off bonus of £12,000 or €12,000 if they agreed to work extra hours, extra days and have low levels of sickness absence. Which didn’t go down well with the existing pilots – who saw it as an attempt to skirt around the real issue. The company responded by saying they were going to cancel part of their pilots’ holidays.

CEO Michael O’Leary said Ryanair had, “”some goodies” to propose to pilots, but added: “If pilots misbehave, that will be the end of the goodies.”

Wow.

Whatever the facts behind the story, the underlying management issues seem pretty clear and are encapsulated by the comments from O’Leary. Ultimately, if you treat employees badly it will come back to bite you at some point – they’re grown up human beings, not children in the primary school playground.

In this case, the issue has come at the cost of an overwhelming operational failure. Ryanair is a provider of flights and they’re unable to provide those flights to customers because their HRM strategy (and PR strategy) has gone woefully wrong. If the employee relations were good and positive, then none of this would have happened.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the issue is holiday scheduling, pilot numbers or pilot availability. In a well run organisation, the issue would have become apparent, a good conversation would have taken place with employees and a collective solution would have been found. The fact that this has played out in the public clearly suggests this wasn’t the case.

Creating positive company cultures with good employee relations is a fundamental part of successfully running an organisation. It won’t necessarily prevent problems from occurring (the world is not perfect), but it will certainly help to solve them when they arise. I’d wager the problems at Ryanair go deeper than simple technical issues of scheduling and whilst consumers might be quick to forget, I’m not sure the employee base will be able to do the same.