Funny, isn’t it? When we talk about a toxic work culture, we always assume we are talking about another company.
But how many of us in positions of leadership actually know what the working environment is like on our own shop floors – and could honestly say there is no evidence of toxicity there?
From a business point of view, there is nothing to be gained from a poor work environment. Productivity drops, morale plunges, staff start taking more sick leave and employee turnover increases as unhappy workers vote with their feet.
Add in the possibility that at some point a really toxic environment will lead to expensive tribunal or court cases, and it is a situation which needs remedying as soon as possible.
The first step for senior management here is to take responsibility for the situation. It’s no use adopting a defensive or stonewall mentality when change is urgently needed. Take a long hard look at the situation and try to see how your conduct – and that of your leadership colleagues – might be responsible for a toxic culture.
This does not have to be a pattern of deliberate behaviour – it might be unconscious behaviour that you are ordinarily unaware of (not saying hello to your team every morning, for example, is a small thing which can quickly breed discontent) or simply piling too much work on those you trust the most.
Whatever the situation, you cannot hope to find a resolution until you have taken a long look at your own behaviour – with real honesty and humility - and how it might have created or added to the problem.
Once you have assessed the behaviour of yourself and your senior management team, you can start to address any potential problems. Is there one manager who is struggling because of workload or personal problems, and who is having a negative effect on staff? Do some managers fail to communicate adequately so that staff are left feeling frustrated and not able to perform effectively? Is there a breakdown in trust at any point between management and staff – and if so how can it be countered?
The next stage is to look at the staff and see how they function as a team. Can you identify any factors here which could be causing mistrust or division and leading to toxicity? Are some team members being left out or sidelined or is one member of staff dominating the team and using their position to control others. Is there evidence of bullying or manipulative behaviour which could be at play?
If there is any evidence here – and among your management team – of toxicity, now is the time to speak to those exposed to it and hear their side of the story. Compassion and an open mind are essential here. It’s important not to brush aside or downplay any person’s testimony or seek to minimise the issues they raise. This is a real opportunity to build trust and show that you have the leadership qualities to get to the bottom of a problem and affect real change.
The more people you speak to, the more chance you have of getting an accurate reflection of any problems. Try to ensure everyone’s voice is heard and that you gather feedback as widely as you can. This can play an essential part in rebuilding the team structure, raising moral and fostering a spirit of inclusion across the company.
Having talked to as many people as possible, you will be able to take action. Do not be tempted to avoid difficult decisions. There’s nothing worse that raising the hope among staff that something is being done about their problems, only for that hope to be dashed. But make sure your actions are proportional to the scale of the problem, are grounded in evidence and do not seek to make scapegoats out of individuals. The aim here is to build unity, remove mistrust and restore confidence.
And finally, do not feel tempted to treat this as a one-off exercise.
Ensuring a company has a healthy, successful work culture is a never-ending process but one which offers huge rewards. Remain vigilant, lead by example and never let your guard down. Trust us, the results will be worth it.
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