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A toxic workplace culture doesn't deepen the pond.

toxic workplace culture

We keep hearing that it is incredibly hard to find good people. In fact, clients often tell us it is hard to find any people and that recruitment protocols are getting close to simply checking for a pulse.

The cliche we hear over and over is that they are ‘fishing in a very shallow pond.’

My question: how do you make a difficult situation better by polluting the pond you are trying to attract them to? By presenting those rare fish with a toxic workplace culture?

Staff shortages are real and challenging. They are the greatest current threat for many organisations. That makes keeping good people and presenting an attractive proposition to new candidates critical priorities.

Which takes me back to the question. How does polluting the pond our current people are swimming in – the same pond we want to attract new people to – solve the problem?

Toxic workplace culture – How we pollute the pond.

What do we mean by polluting our pond? By making unacceptable compromises about the people who swim in our pond and what they do there.

The fear of the shallow recruitment pond leads organisations to accept the unacceptable and recruit the unaligned.

  • We accept the unacceptable when we fail to hold people accountable for poor performance and poor behaviour out of fear that they might leave. But what happens when we don’t hold them accountable and they stay? How does that impact the pool that our current team is swimming in?
  • We recruit people who aren’t the right fit because we need someone to fill a chair. And almost anybody will do. That solves some problems like head count and compliance, and replaces them with fresh problems like performance issues, drain on management time, compromised workplace culture, reduced standards, low morale and strain on existing team members.

At the risk of torturing the metaphor, here are two critical questions.

  • How do we keep our good people on the hook?
  • How do we land big fish in shallow ponds?

How do we keep our good people on the hook?

Staff turnover is a reality that you can influence but not control. People leave for reasons that you can’t change – but most of the motives people have for looking at other opportunities are things you can at least influence.

Workplace culture rejects outliers. If you have a great workplace culture, it isn’t a comfortable experience for poor performers and they are likely to leave. The reverse is also true. If you have a mediocre or toxic workplace culture, it is an unrewarding experience for higher performers. They become frustrated, disillusioned, and start looking at what else is available. Because they are top performers, they have more options and it is only a matter of time before someone offers them an irresistible lure.

Don’t hide behind the excuse that people leave because of money. It’s a cop-out. If you truly believe that money is the only factor, you better hope that you can pay more than anyone else. If not, start giving up now.

Beyond the pay cheque.

For everyone else, pay people as well as you can and then work on the other things that people want from their workplace. The great news is that all those people who believe it is just about money are too lazy to look at these factors, which gives you a head start:

  • Interesting work and the opportunity to go home most nights feeling they have done something worthwhile
  • Connection with a well led and high functioning team
  • Genuine empowerment, which means being able to control their own work and have an influence in the organisation
  • Opportunities for growth, learning, and advancement
  • Working arrangements that recognise them as a human being with a life that goes beyond just work
  • A leader who values, appreciates and challenges them 
  • Going at home at night happy and uplifted as a result of belonging to a high performing team

Entrenched toxic workplace culture – Threats or opportunities?

Narrow-minded managers see this as a list of problems to be addressed, people forgetting their station. Enlightened leaders see them as opportunities, as people desperate to grow and contribute more.

Does this describe all of your team members? Absolutely not. But it describes the ones you want to keep.

To create a workplace culture that provides these things, we need to change some habits. Leaders have to work to create opportunities and to make high performance and positive behaviour the norm. They have to hold people accountable to high standards and strong values. They have to stop accepting the unacceptable.

How do we land big fish in shallow ponds?

The priority should be retaining outstanding team members, but you will still need to find new people – to replace turnover when the culture rejects poorer performers, or to facilitate growth.

Consider this. Your candidates may swim in a shallow pond, but it is one that offers them abundant opportunities. You aren’t the only people fishing and some others may have better bait and shinier hooks (too far with the metaphor?).

By working to keep your best people, you have created the sort of pristine pond they may be tempted to swim into, but there is still work to do.

Letting go of perfect.

The first thing is to let go of perfect. There aren’t many remarkably good or bad people out there – there are just people responding to the workplace climate and leadership they are exposed to.

Copy of Is workplace culture worth the time and effort (1128 × 191 px)

Think about yourself – you have probably been a mediocre performer in at least one workplace. You have probably been a very good or even an exceptional performer somewhere as well. You were the same person – the difference was almost a reaction to leadership and culture.

The best way to let go of perfect is to recruit character, and invest more in building skill, knowledge and capability. Genuinely challenge how essential it is for your candidates to have specific experience, qualifications, and skills. If you’re recruiting doctors, it doesn’t mean you can hire an electrician and let them have a bash. But perhaps a motivated person, who will be a great team fit, could learn some skills and gain experience from more senior team members or through training you provide them.

Deepening the pool.

Innovative organisations are establishing programs to take culturally aligned people and provide them with opportunities to grow. This deepens the pool they are fishing from and positions their pond as one that the big fish want to swim in.

Another strategy to deepen the pool is to really think about what you are prepared to offer, beyond the money. The shift towards flexible working arrangements is so powerful that you can’t afford to pay it lip service. Look at job design to find flexibility and provide opportunities for balance, growth and connection that people are looking for.

Out-fishing the competition.

There are no quick fixes that allow you to pluck the fish you want, whenever you want. But, by becoming a workplace that your best people want to stay in, you also become a workplace that candidates are drawn to, and one they remain in for longer.

Getting there is not a flick of the switch, it’s a gradual process. The sooner you commit to that process, the sooner you will start to land the biggest fish!

Need some help with your culture or looking for more resources? Our Podcast – Authenticity Transforming Workplace Culture is dedicated to helping leaders close the gap between the workplace culture they have, and the workplace culture they want.