CULTURE Matters are LEADERSHIP Matters

Is there a toxic workplace culture epidemic?  Are we living in such harsh economic times that survival of the fiercest is now accepted work practice? 

Lately I have read and heard so many stories about the negative impact that toxic workplaces have on those who try to navigate through this thick, murky slush. These stories are not a new phenomenon; most of us have probably worked in less than desirable cultures [hopefully, only for a short time]. But has someone turned up the dial?

It seems that every week, every other day, I hear another toxic workplace story; and I am increasingly concerned that not enough is being done to address this. Two stories that stood out for me lately, written by highly influential leaders, really resonated with my own observations.

One shared a real and raw personal story about the targeting and breaking down of one’s mental state to a point where they felt powerless and in the end, had no choice but to leave. The concern I took from this story, is the struggle that those who walk away commonly have; staying quiet about it and perhaps embarrassed at being thought as ‘weak’ or mentally unfit to cope. Like it’s a career limiting move to mention it?

The other resonating story was about the extreme and collaborative bite-size bullying described as ‘workplace mobbing’; where the ‘chief bully’ enlists several supporters to deploy a variety of undermining actions, designed to collectively encourage the victim to resign. Things like spreading lies, withdrawing support, and excluding them from meetings and projects. Continual targeting like a slow chipping away at the person’s credentials and value.

Last year I wrote a series of blogs on the common and insidious practice of passive bullying, after personally witnessing something similar.  Interestingly, it too was a case of ‘workplace mobbing’; although I hadn’t heard of that terminology until recently.

The most shocking case that I’ve ever observed was to a highly-regarded executive leader, who was continually trying to rise above and turn around an entrenched toxic culture; in the hope that his own morals, high ethics, and role-model engagement practices, would gradually make a positive difference. While ‘everybody’ within the organisation could see that’s what was needed, it’s a tough gig when the toxicity resides and manifests from above – at the top. As people began to warm to his refresing approach, it became increasingly obvious that those in power saw him as a threat to their own kingdom. 

When they couldn’t succeed in encouraging him to leave through ignoring his projects and achievements, disregarding his pro-active suggestions, discrediting him in the broader community; they then terminated his contract without notice or affording any natural justice, for what was clearly malicious and vexatious intent. I was gobsmacked that the CEO of a large governing body, would practice such blatant disregard for employment law. Worse still; that the board knew it was malicious and wrong but chose to allow it to occur.  

Interestingly, the ‘chief’ ring leader in this instance, was well-experienced at standing in the shadows, keeping her own hands clean-ish, while plotting and manipulating others in her authority circle to carry out this 'mob-like' destructive behaviour.  Turns out this type of behaviour was not a new or one-off occurrence; seems it was a well-honed, self-preservation tactic.

It is these kinds of entrenched practices that fuels workplace toxicity levels. Imagine the trust levels in organisations like this. Virtually zero. Everyone backing up to the mirror to check for knife marks.

So, what can be done?   Firstly, staying silent about these practices, is not a helpful strategy. I understand how mentally draining it is on the victim and walking away is sometimes best for their personal health; at least initially. However, can there really be a sense of closure if there are no consequences for the perpetrator/s actions or the organisation’s inactions?  How does silence bring about improvement solutions?

What I do know from experience, is there’s not enough support for the ‘victim’. By the time they leave or are forced out of the workplace, they are pretty stressed out and fragile. Hopefully, they seek medical support; often to be told by their Doctors NOT to legally pursue the matter for fear it will damage their health further. Going down the legal pathway is a long, complicated, and expensive battle for an individual to take on.  Many just can’t do that; not on their own.

Of course, those toxic workplaces continuing to support the experienced perpetrators -  know this. There is a very real power and financial imbalance when lawyers fees for badly-behaving leaders gets paid by the organisation, but the victim has to cover their own medical and legal costs. 

Something must be done, as the impact on individuals in the workplace seems to be getting worse.  Great to see some of our lead organisations, like the Institute of Managers and Leaders – IML are bringing it out of the shadows, to openly talk about it.

No matter how hard it is to flush this out, those who continue to walk past it and turn a blind eye, are condoning it. Head in the sand, just waiting until the ‘weakest link’ leaves the organisation; these are not strategies, and certainly NOT leadership. The perpetrators will find another victim. The toxic workplace culture will continue to fester, and in my personal view – that is a big black mark against the leader.

The health of an organisation’s culture IS a leadership responsibility. The tone of an organisation’s culture; being how things are done around here – the behavioural expectations, should all be set at the top, by the leader.

Sure, I know that new leaders often inherit toxic workplace cultures, but the health status of the organisation they now head up, should be priority number one from week one.  Poor workplace cultures do not produce great results; and we all know the stats and costs of poor retention and re-recruiting. It’s nuts to ignore this stuff. 

So, all that stated … why is this still occurring?  

Well, from my recent and very real observations; positive change to workplace culture won’t happen if the undesirable behaviour is:

  1. Coming from the top: the board, council, leader or exec leadership team, and/or …
  2. Ignored or accepted [same thing] from the top.

There needs to be a willingness for wholesale change, when it becomes obvious that the status quo is toxic. And a level of urgency to address it from the top. It is not acceptable for boards, councils, and governing bodies to just wait out 3-5 year employment contracts, rather than utilising performance management and code of conduct practices.

Caring about the health of your workplace culture is about caring and valuing the health and well-being of your people. People’s mental states and lives matter.

That is why I firmly believe:  Culture matters are leadership matters.


Written by Jilinda Lee - MMgt, CMgr FIML, CAHRI

Change Champion, Leadership Coach, OD Strategist, Writer, Speaker … Founder and Managing Director of Vital Leaders, and passionate inspirer of dynamic, game-changing leaders.

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