When did “toxic” become a corporate culture modifier?

At Experiential Review, we tried to trace it back to 1980, when Jack Nicholson fell into a vat of noxious poison at Axis Chemicals, took a swing at Batman, and redefined what it meant to be in a toxic work environment. However, it seems “toxic” is a more recent workplace buzzword—truly cemented a few years back by a revealing Harvard Business School review.

Nowadays the exhumation and examination of harmful workplace environments takes place from coast to coast and around the globe on a daily basis. And more than likely, you’ve experienced one such environment, or know several people who dread going to work. The reasons seem as consistent as they are constant, “I’m afraid to say anything.” “It’s a cramdown, from the top down.” “I’m buried in a dead-end silo.” And the dreaded, “etc., etc.”

However, if you’re reading between the last few lines above, you see that a toxic culture isn’t necessarily seeded by a few bad apples internally. More often than not, the common denominator is that leadership just didn’t see the atmosphere becoming contaminated, or frankly ignored it due to a self-serving attitude or as an oversight from overwork.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast …

Peter DruckerManagement Consultant, Educator & Author

(… perhaps apocryphal, nonetheless splendid)

Studies on this subject seem to be as plentiful as the list of actual corporate complaints. And so much research observes a result that’s fascinating: a positive work culture not only benefits employee morale and motivation, but can also improve a business’ overall expenses, revenue and success. In fact, simply addressing a detrimental culture can potentially help ROI more than most any other factor.

At ER, we thought it might be a good time to look at a few of the characteristics normally at play in a negative corporate culture. So we asked Encore Live’s Business Development Group what they’re seeing on the front lines when examining the internal dynamics of a corporation, and to give us their top three prevalent problems discovered.

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State-o’-the-Company One:

“It’s my way … or feel free to take the highway.”

Sorry. Yeah. We thought we’d start here.

A gigantic problem (that is frequently and predictably hard to point out as a crisis) can be the inability of a CEO or C-level leaders to realize they are driving a company rather than leading it. That is, rather than going out front, displaying what they’re asking employees to do, presenting the example—in fact, leading—drivers are found behind employees, pushing, if not figuratively whipping workers, in a direction. Nobody likes having to run for a carrot, and they’re really not wild about the person holding the stick.

Narcissistic leaders only view employees as subordinates, which creates several problematic byproducts—from keeping employees in the dark through lack of transparency to excessive rumors and a passive-aggressive office environment.

That’s why self-awareness is a critical quality of effective leadership, it’s a sign that C-level leaders respect the team enough to own and fix any problems. But it’s not smart to tell the boss, “Hey @#%*!, the problem might be you.”

Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation.

Doris Kearns GoodwinBiographer, Historian & Political Commentator

“Obviously, many times it’s just hard for executives to see this dilemma,” noted Encore Live’s Mark Olson, “Which is why a lot of experiential companies aren’t called in to solve this situation. But in fact, it’s easy to create situations that commingle leaders and employees to help alleviate this kind of toxicity. Not with a typical conference, where leaders can disappear after speaking, but to bridge the gap using situations that immerse leaders with the team. Volunteer work is a great example—painting houses, filling food boxes—charity work truly works wonders in galvanizing. Showing a leader in front, not behind.”

So, of course leadership can set workplace tone simply by what they say and (don’t) do. But they can also let detrimental behavior patterns become acceptable by not recognizing …

State-o’-the-Company Two:

“I like the guy next to me … not so much the guy in silo 101.”

Silos. They can be good in wartime, but not so great for the workplace. Under siloed conditions, employees can end up running their own shop and shunning collaboration. When those walls go up, team members feel isolated from broader priorities and won’t focus of other departments—or more critically, the greater good for the entire organization.

This is especially true in product-driven companies. Stacking an organization around products means you can have teams caring passionately about their own production, but not as much for others. Worse, many times these pocketed silos are competing for resources and support, which breeds an adversarial atmosphere and even more contempt. In short, you could spend your career working on the Ford F-150 and never care at all how the Mustang is humming along.

Leadership is absolutely about inspiring action, but also about guarding against mis-action.

Simon SinekMotivational Speaker & Marketing Consultant

Another development in this second bucket could be when a company has an offering that’s a bit long in the tooth, and a situation where it’s time to evolve or die. Employees who’ve worked in a legacy silo for years have a hard time letting assets, benefits or profits go to subsidize “some other thing.” Also, if you feel like your job might be in jeopardy, it’s really hard to get people to reach across siloed teams. Which is where scenario two tends to overlap with our third bucket …

State-o’-the-Company Three:

“I like the old guy next to me … not so much the new guy walking in.”

The ever-popular old-culture-meets-new-culture conundrum. There’s plenty of reasons it could happen: a new leader brings in his or her team, or the company hits a growth spurt—as in a technology company which took a decade to get off the ground suddenly explodes and has to scale up quickly, which oftentimes involves bringing in new leadership for scaling rather than getting off the ground.

I loved it in the old days, when we were a company of x-number of people and now there’s these new people and everything changed and it’s all different and I don’t like it and you’re stupid.” Sounds like the mentality of my six-year-old, and unfortunately it resonates to an overwhelming number of nationwide workforces.

The challenge between state-o’-company scenarios two and three—my product vs. your product, my old company vs. your new one—are very similar. But the solutions are equally comparable, with success that can be more assured than in our first scenario. However, it can’t simply be leadership saying, “Be a team!” If there’s not a shared experience, across silos, teams and personalities, it’s simply platitudes.

In truth, detoxifying a workplace might not have anything to do with work. An activity where fractionalized teams are simply trying to accomplish the same goal can build strong bridges across departments and employees. And suddenly “That guy is” not so bad anymore. “Those other people” are no longer nameless, faceless threats, so perhaps I’m a little more interested in their success and more open to their ideas.

Growing a culture requires a good storyteller. Changing a culture requires a persuasive editor.

Ryan LillyEntrepreneurship & Economic Development Consultant

Certainly there are more factors involved in a problematic workplace than we’ve listed here. Lack of honesty. Favoritism. A whacked-out number of rules and regulations, with confusing communications from confused hierarchy.

But a new mobile economy has opened doors and eyes. Employees now have more choices, and more opportunities not to be locked into a toxic workplace. Why do you think so many CEOs now begin meetings by discussing employees rather than business or earnings? And the good news for leadership is that they just might find it easier than expected to solve the challenges laid out in this article through forward-thinking experiential methods and means. Where it’s possible to build a culture of purpose and inclusion, with inspired leadership and empowered employees.

Well, unless you’re an @#%*!

Bruce Wilson

Author Bruce Wilson

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