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Seven leaders who create toxic workplace culture.

Picture of Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen

CEO, Culture Consultant, Facilitator

This article was personally written by Simon Thiessen based on over 30 years experience with leadership and workplace culture

I finished my presentation and the CEO beamed at me.

That’s brilliant,’ he said. ‘It’s great to have confirmation that we are doing all the right things.

He smiled around at the rest of the assembled executive team, stopping only just short of reaching up to pat himself on the back. Meanwhile, one executive rolled their eyes at another, while three more stared down at the table.

The presentation was called Demystifying and Transforming Workplace Culture. I had offered to do it for the executive team after meeting the People & Culture manager, who was now staring fixedly at the table, at an event the previous month. She had confided in me that the organisation was having significant issues with accountability, performance, morale and retention. This toxic workplace culture was flowing through to bottom line performance. Yet here was the CEO proudly proclaiming that their culture was remarkably good.

In fact, throughout the presentation he had frequently interrupted, sometimes talking over other executive team members, to point out how fabulous things were. ‘Of course, we’re not perfect,’ he had benevolently acknowledged, ‘but we’re doing all the right things.’

Everyone else sitting at that table wanted to call ‘bullshit’. But they either didn’t dare or knew it would be pointless, so they sat in silence which the CEO assumed to signify agreement.

Over the next six months, two members of that executive took positions elsewhere, standards and performance across the team continued to decline, and morale, staff engagement and retention became diabolical.

This CEO belongs to one of the seven categories of senior leaders we regularly encounter who create toxic workplace cultures. When we find one of these managers in the most senior (or influential) role, we know that nothing we – or other executives on the team – do will make a difference. It reduces the chances of positive cultural change to about 50%, because only half are willing to genuinely acknowledge the way they impact the culture.

The message for readers, especially senior leaders? Before you even begin a discussion about your workplace culture, review this list. Are you one of these managers? If so, are you willing to address that as part of the culture program? Do you know what type of culture you have? Read our blog here

The rose-coloured glasses that create toxic workplace culture.

The manager in the introduction isn’t a bad guy. He’s positive and energetic and has great intentions. It’s just that his awareness of what is happening around him is appalling. He is so intoxicated by his upbeat view of the world – and his need to gain validation by convincing himself of the paradise he presides over – that he just doesn’t get it.

Why does this create toxic workplace culture? People get swept up in the energy and the vision and throw themselves completely into their role – which makes reality much harder to accept. As excited as they initially are by the over celebration of triumphs, they ultimately feel devastated by the under acknowledgement of issues. When the CEO’s delusion means that problems aren’t seen, let alone addressed, cynicism and disillusionment are close behind.

The solution: Talk less, listen more. This will lead to hearing about the workplace as it is, not just the vision of it that you want sell. Don’t let go of that vision, just accept that the vision is aspirational and will never be achieved without addressing reality.

The mirror that lies and creates toxic workplace culture

These senior leaders recognise that the workplace culture isn’t great. Their delusion kicks in when they start considering why that is the case. They can see the faults in their people, they acknowledge that systems and resources are not always ideal, they even perceive the faults in the executive team they have assembled. What they miss – because their mirror deceives them – is their role in the problem.

When we hear from these leaders, they want us to ‘fix their staff’. They are invariably shocked when they hear that they are part of the problem. Around 50% take the feedback and work on being better versions of themselves. The other 50% close their ears, insist on makeshift solutions, and are disappointed when they have exactly the same problems a year – or two, three, four years – later.

toxic workplace culture

The solution: Be open to feedback and hear it as someone else’s reality and not as a fact to be disputed. There may not be much feedback, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. In fact, if you never hear feedback, it probably means that people don’t feel safe giving it. You may need to invite feedback from people who are willing to be honest – perhaps someone outside the organisation who doesn’t fear retribution or consequence.

The personal paradise in a toxic workplace

Senior leaders have more control over their workplace than other team members. This means they can often quickly address the issues that diminish their experience. Even when they can’t, they are able to accept those circumstances as the consequences of their own decisions.

toxic workplace culture

We see countless workplaces where the experience of the senior leader, the executive team, and sometimes even broader management is dramatically different to that of other team members. In those organisations, the further ‘down the food chain’ people feel they are, the worse their experience of the workplace culture is.

The biggest danger is the assumption that our own experience is representative of everyone else’s experience. When we use psychometric tools to measure these cultures, including the different experiences that each group has, senior management is often shocked to see people don’t feel the same way they do.

The solution: spend more time away from your desk and the executive suite. Get out amongst the team and listen to what they have to say. Encourage them to be open with you by asking vulnerable questions – what frustrates you most at work? If you could change anything at work, what would it be? How happy are you at work? Why? And then listen to their answers with curiosity (which means follow up questions) rather than judgement.

Changing the toxic workplace culture without change

These leaders are looking for someone with a magic wand. They recognise that there are issues and even that they are part of the problem. They are determined to see change – until reality hits. That normally happens when they need to actually do something.

Why do they have a problem at this point? Because they want change, they like the idea of what that change will produce, but they don’t want to let go of anything.

They are incredibly happy for everyone else to change – in fact, they expect them to – but changing their own habits, leadership styles, strategies and systems is a stumbling block. When team members see leaders as unwilling to change, they buy out of and passively resist efforts to transform the workplace culture.

toxic workplace culture

The solution: before you commit to a change in the workplace culture, think about what you will personally need to change. Then, as a reality check, invite feedback. Only commit to the broader changes if you are prepared to make those personal changes.

The addiction to comfort that creates toxic workplace culture

There are many ways to stay comfortable, including the delusion and avoidance of feedback outlined above. Avoidance of discomfort could also be achieved by surrounding yourself with people who won’t challenge you, people that have all been issued with the song sheet and are committed to singing from it, even when the words make no sense. These are people who make you feel nice but do nothing to drive positive change outcomes, because they balk at honest discussions.

toxic workplace culture

Some leaders ensure there is no discomfort by avoiding conflict and accountability, both of which are essential to a genuine improvement in workplace culture. Read our blog on cohesive workplace culture here.

The solution: make sure you have at least one person who will fearlessly tell you what they see and think – and encourage them to keep doing that. They are more valuable to you than ten people telling you what you want to hear.

The toxic workplace culture is a problem, but not my problem

These leaders not only expect someone else to fix all the issue in the workplace culture, they disassociate themselves from the problem. Transforming workplace culture is challenging but achievable for the right person if they have the leader’s support. Unfortunately, this leader tends to throw their hands in the air, pronounce that the issues are nothing to do with them and insist that other people fix them. That’s what I pay you for!

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? We encountered exactly this situation recently when talking with a group of leaders, including the two owners and principals. One principal was disengaged throughout the discussion, left to answer his phone a couple of times, and concluded the discussion by telling his Administration Manager that he expected them to sort it out. When she asked for the support and resources to address issues, he stormed off in a huff.

The Admin Manager, had no expertise in People & Culture, no experience with the issues she was confronted by, was given no support or resources, yet was held accountable by the principals for the fallout the issues created.

The solution: honestly, there probably isn’t one. This level of self-absorption is probably terminal and our advice to the Administration Manager is simple. Get out!

If you’re a senior leader reading this, and wondering if it may describe you, that’s a good start. Accept that workplace culture is one of the ultimate responsibilities of senior leadership. Go ahead and do some delegation but make sure it come with your support and commitment, and the resources to do the job.

The toxic workplace culture that was a priority. Until it wasn’t

These leaders create a self perpetuating trap for themselves by being so reactive that they never deal with the critical things. They have great intentions that consistently pushed aside by urgent short term issues.

The scrub fires that consume their energy and attention are caused by issues with the workplace culture – but those scrub fires interfere every time they proclaim they are committed to action and real initiatives gets pushed back again …and again…and again.

The people around them lose faith – they’ve heard it all before, and soon mediocrity is not just the norm. It becomes accepted.

The solution: commit the time and resources and maintain that commitment no matter what. Perhaps that means a slower process – instead of trying to change the world in a week, it may become a slower but relentless process, but at least it is happening. Perhaps it means giving someone the responsibility (and support) for driving the project or it may mean committing to external support.

toxic workplace culture

Improving your own workplace culture

When leaders are in these levels of denial, we would like to say that the worse than can happen is that nothing will change. Except it will and inevitably for the worse.

Each of these leaders represent a number of real people we have encountered in our work. Which one(s) are you? Can you honestly say, hand on heart, that you are none of these people? If so, go all out at improving your workplace culture.

If you are one or more of the leaders we have described, address that issue first (or as part of the process) and then go out at improving the culture. The outcomes produced by a great workplace culture will make it worthwhile.

Need some help with your culture? Book a 15 minute chat to talk about your needs.