Do you have a Toxic Culture?

Worker inflating toxic balloon

The label ‘toxic culture’ seems to be a popular one these days for organisations – in the UK at least – accused of a variety of misdeeds. Earlier this month the CBI, a business lobby group, suffered a PR nightmare as reports of sexual harassment spread to allegations of rape at a work party and then more broadly into admissions of a culture of harassment and misogyny. Pleas by the highly-respected Dame Carolyn Fairbairn (the CBI’s Director General at the time of the alleged events) in the Sunday Times, that the CBI had ‘a really good culture’, fell short of convincing and appeared to be more of an exercise in reputation protection. Fairbairn’s main argument appears to be that these events were a matter of individuals behaving badly towards women, rather than a broader cultural problem (implying this, in fact, different to culture … and was a lesser charge). More on this later.

In the past week, the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster, ITV, has become embroiled in their own ‘toxic culture’ furore, where a previously concealed affair by one of the presenters with a junior colleague has led to the departure of the presenter and a great deal of negative press coverage for the individual, the programme and broadcaster.

These two instances are good examples of how specific behaviours by individuals within an organisation can lead to broader assumptions around culture – quickly get amplified by the court of public opinion – to a point where reputation is damaged. In the CBIs’ case, the reputational damage may be terminal as members desert it in droves, not wanting to be seen to support or be associated with such behaviour.

This sends shivers down the proverbial spines of board rooms across the UK as they see corporate and personal reputations, built over years, being destroyed with alarming speed – Tesco’s Chairman John Allan being the latest high-profile victim of allegations over his behaviour.

You may think these are isolated incidents, but Forbes names ‘toxic culture’ to be the #1 reason behind resignations, and it is on the rise. HR News states that ‘1 in 5 workers claims their current workplace has a toxic culture‘ and even the Financial Times has made it a focus. The British Army‘s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst has also had its own learning opportunity as to the meaning of ‘toxic culture‘ recently. It seems no organisation is exempt, although easy fixes are elusive.

The rapid shift in expectations of a workplace, signified by the individualisation of identity and experience and the increased speed and reach by which issues are communicated has left many senior leaders appearing tone-deaf and flat-footed. Workplaces may not have got worse in terms of behaviour, but it is clear that expectations have changed, and people today are much more willing to call out what they consider unacceptable behaviour. there are implications for organisations that – without wading into the broader culture wars – I’d like to draw out.

Three principal things have changed:

Firstly, workplace experience is now much more subjective. Rather as a doctor evaluates pain in terms of how the patient experiences it (because we all feel pain differently), organisational culture is now what employees say it is, rather than what an organisation would like it to be. Gone are the days when centrally published integrity policies and ‘values’ posters plastered around the building are sufficient or even important. Whether an individual in an organisation views behaviour as acceptable or not is now more important than any objective judgment (this is what brought down the UK’s Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minster, Dominic Raab).

Secondly, culture is behaviours … and behaviours are the culture. They are indivisible. Culture should be viewed in terms of behaviours in an organisation and not as some indistinct subset of employee experiences. This is where Carolyn Fairbairn so badly misjudged her defence of the CBI: by claiming that the CBI’s culture was in fact ‘”good”, whilst also accepting that some behaviours were unacceptable (and possibly criminal), she made the cardinal error of quarantining some behaviours as somehow outside the broader average experience of working at the CBI. This is wrong and perpetuates an unhelpful narrative around culture being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Culture (behaviours) is either what you need it to be, or not. No exceptions.

Lastly, the disruption to workplaces, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has made articulating, establishing and maintaining a culture across an organisation much more complex and requires much more deliberate focus and effort. In the past, when centralised offices predominated, cultures were largely transmitted implicitly, though thousands of informal prompts and behavioural queues learnt and adopted over time. Workplaces are now much more fluid, with location being less important and people spending less time together.

There are clear implications to the above diagnostic:

As with society, the world of work is changing fast. Attitudes and practices need to adapt as quickly to meet employees’ expectations, whilst also proving an environment where complex and collaborative gets done quickly and efficiently. This is, after all, why organisations exist in the first place.

Author: Charlie Coode, Partner

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