To all the toxic cultures I've not loved before. Dawn of a new day.
I've worked in plenty of cultures I'd describe as toxic. And that's no surprise if you look at the stats relating to how chronically disengaged the modern workforce is. Seems reasonable that there's a correlation between disengaged workers and toxic culture, so the current Gallup poll stats showing that 85% of the workforce are disengaged indicates there's a lot of toxicity out there. So what exactly does toxic culture mean? There's plenty of definitions of toxic culture, but to my mind it's workplaces where you can't thrive. They're environments where oppressive, controlling, judgemental and blaming to outright vicious and bullying behaviours run rife.
But how does that happen? To me it's reminiscent of the famous Martin Niemoller quote shown in the picture above. Bad behaviour flourishes where good men and women do nothing. And that comes directly back to the stellar work Brene Brown and her team has done to codify and popularise the notions that honesty, vulnerability and learning not to be 'heavily armoured' are essential to both good leadership and culture. By heavily armoured Brown means that we must learn to interrogate the 'icky factor', or the less pleasant emotions we feel, as where we're triggered we have the greatest growth potential and we need to embrace that - but it takes courage!
When I recently read Brene Brown's book, 'Dare to Lead' I kept being reminded of the story about Alexander the Great who (according to Plutarch) when offered water from a helmet on a long desert march refused to drink before his men stating that, 'if I alone should drink, the rest will be out of heart'. That's aspirational leadership in action, as of course when word of Alexander's deeds were carried back along the caravan his men marched with renewed vigour, because in Alexander they had found a leader worth following.
So to draw the bow back to toxic cultures, bad behaviour can only flourish when good people do nothing, at all levels of the organisation. So let's be the men and women that do something.
Like Alexander, we must see ourselves in others and through shared experience and mutual support build the trust and empowerment cultures that move mountains and conquer worlds.
We have to be brave, be vulnerable and call that shit out. That's hard in the workplace, because we're thinking about our job, our pay cheque, our mortgage and our kids. We're choosing safety over satisfaction. However, it can be immensely rewarding to choose courage, but never easy or safe. It can teach us to be the best of ourselves. We can all start a movement.
If nobody supported a toxic culture then it would shrivel and die on the self-loathing vine on which it sprung.
It takes courage, real courage, ruthless courage even - open-heartedness, honesty, a refusal to live in denial and a refusal to settle for what can never truly satisfy.
We must be ruthless yet righteous.
Not so long ago in my own close-up brush with toxic culture I was pulled in for a 'chat' (oh how the team dreaded those chats...) with my Programme Manager. I was told 4 times in 30 minutes (yes I timed it) that I was responsible for change delivery across the entire programme and I would be held FULLY accountable for that delivery across the programme. The set of the eyes and tone of the voice each time this was said carried real and increasing threat. Not once was I told how this person, my Programme Manager, intended to support and enable me to successfully deliver on that accountability.
That conversation and the year and a half prior made me vow that I would not, 'stand-by' while good men and women were penalised, undermined and villified by toxic culture, which springs from toxic leadership and a deep refusal to look within and face the hard stuff. That programme managers behaviour was motivated by deep, deep fear of personal failure wedded to a dark well of insecurity (and a significant dose of barely masked out-of depthness). But that's not that uncommon is it? There's a lot of people harbouring deep insecurity behind masks of control and aggression. This means no personal reflection can be tolerated - too scary and so everything and everyone must be bitten down on to choke back that fear.
So far I haven't stood by - but I have given myself the objective distance to get directly out of the work place and operate as a change leadership consultant - 'alongside, but not 'in''. I've committed to working full time to help leaders be great leaders which builds high trust and open-hearted commitment, which builds great culture.
So, could you be the one that doesn't stand by? Could you be the one to let courage, 'flame out like lightening from shook foil'? Could you be a leader on the long march from toxic to great culture?
'Ruthless but righteous'. A paraphrase of Wim Hof talking about the cold. 'The cold is ruthless but righteous'.
'...flame out like lightening from shook foil'. An excerpt from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'God's Grandeur'.
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Barb Grant is a change leadership coach, writer and singer who coaches effective change leadership.