Leading in a toxic culture? Transform it by absorbing, not resisting
How do you escape a corporate culture you hate to work in each day? Should it be attacked head-on, or is another more subtle approach needed?
Perhaps you know the feeling of being trapped in a toxic work environment. The stress you experience each weekday is real. It can’t be escaped by positive thinking, thoughts, and prayers or any of the other techniques that work on lesser problems. Plus, simplistic advice like “Just quit, nuh?” isn’t helpful in a weak economy where everyone you know is scrambling to hold on to a job.
Unfortunately, we are taught from early on to conquer evil by launching strong resistance. After all, this approach worked to end slavery, get the vote and achieve independence. It also works in wars.
Fighting hard to win seems to be the best way to change your company’s culture. It appears to be a far better strategy than merely surrendering making it the tactic most corporate leaders use.
Unfortunately, it has faults which only makes things worse. Here are three examples.
An executive sits at her desk looking at the exit statistics. The best performers are consistently leaving for other companies, siphoning away the second-bests within a few months. Before long, only third-bests will remain—a recipe for disaster.
The head of human resources tries to convince her there’s a huge internal problem. But she refuses to accept it. Her people are being stolen by those with deeper pockets, an injustice. She angrily denies that the culture of her company is driving people away.
In her mind, she is the big victim.
A CEO scrolls through the survey results. The staff has spoken: employee satisfaction and engagement scores have dipped even further. Obviously, the prior year’s interventions didn’t work, in spite of his hard work and extra effort. In fact, they actually made things worse.
“They shouldn’t feel this way.”
His response is all-too-human. As a species, we have a remarkable ability to argue with reality even when it’s staring us in the face. The response is instinctive – a way to protect ourselves from bad news.
It’s also beside the point. Given his goal of changing a toxic culture, the new scores provide valuable data which tell a nuanced story. Instead of being discarded, they need to be the basis for new plans going forward, as the leadership team “wheels and comes again.”
However, whenever he repeats the refrain in every executive meeting, real discussion stops. Lots of words are spoken, but his comment inserts a dangerous fiction at the moment the team should be grappling with hard truths.
As a result, they make no progress.
A Managing Director is stunned by the ungrateful nature of his staff members. His official Coffee Chats, an opportunity to meet with small groups of employees, has not turned out the way he wanted.
“Is this all you people do each day… just b***h and moan?” he finally lashes out, frustrated. All future open conversations are cancelled.
In his mind, they only became a bottomless pit of complaints. Instead of presenting a useful balance of positive and negative experiences, they dwelt on the bad stuff.
In response, he withdraws, turning into himself: an act of self-preservation in which he can lick his wounds in private. He limits his meetings to people he knows are happy, eschewing group gatherings. After all, no-one seems to care that he is also a human being who has real feelings.
The First Step
The behaviors displayed in the above examples are commonplace among leaders.
In each case, they experience unwanted internal feelings, triggered by other people’s unhappy expressions. To cope, they attack the source in the hope it will go away.
This tactic sometimes works in life, on simple problems. However, it fails to transform complex corporate cultures. In the high stakes positions they inhabit, the only answer is to learn how to fully accept, absorb and “be with” the stuff most people resist. In other words, instead of turning unwanted internal feelings into the enemy, they must mature to a place when they can be embraced.
While this is much easier to write or say than to practice, top executives need to evolve to the point where they can step aside from their own instinctive reactions. It’s the first, unavoidable step towards transforming themselves, demonstrating the radical kind of inside-out change that people need to see.
As such, this message isn’t only for top executives. It’s for any employee caught in a toxic company they can’t stand, but can’t immediately leave. Acceptance rather than resistance is the most powerful first step.
Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2017, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org