Why you let toxic cultures flourish

An organisation is only as good as the behaviours that it’s prepared to tolerate.

by Colin D Ellis
Last Updated: 03 Mar 2020
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Food for thought

Toxic cultures can fester in all sorts of environments, and fire services are no exception. In the first annual report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, inspectors found that 24 per cent of staff had felt bullied or harassed in their workplace in the last 12 months, with this proportion rising to nearly half in one fire service.

They also found cases of discrimination and intimidation, leading to Chief Inspector Sir Thomas Winsor to call for a code of ethics - as though more process and documentation will sort it all out.  

That’s been the answer to toxic workplace culture for years and yet rarely does it change.

Instead, bullying behaviour continues to dominate, people are afraid to speak up, productivity suffers and HR departments – whose job it is to help the organisation rid itself of these kinds of cultures – sit back and tell managers that ‘it’s a long process to get rid of anyone.’

Research has shown time and again that workplace culture is the number one determinant of organisational success, that employees achieve great things when they are happy, get to know each other and feel safe to do their best work.

So what’s stopping all organisations from trying to achieve this? 

For some it’s a lack of courage to take on the bullies, many of whom occupy senior leadership positions. For others it’s confusion - they know what the issues are but don’t know what to do about it, resorting to sending people on training courses instead in the hope that the problem rights itself. For most, however, it’s apathy.

They know that culture is the most important thing. They’ve been to conferences, read books and listened to TED Talks, and they feel inspired, but then they get back to the office and don’t know where to start. 

So they try to put a number on what good culture looks like to please the CEO, create a ‘program’ that addresses the issues and then, when the finish line is in sight, they develop a fixed mindset about the whole thing and never bother. 

The issues at fire services are felt at thousands of organisations around the world, where a lack of humanity leads to unsafe workplaces, where confrontation is avoided and ‘brilliant jerks’ rule the roost. In these cultures, it’s critically important that the problem is dealt with head-on.

Creating a set of values to hold people to is a good start, but only if that process is owned by the staff. After all, it’s their culture and their values, so they are the ones who have to hold each other to them. When individuals make the choice to act against the values, they have to be dealt with swiftly and without apology.

In his excellent book Principles, Ray Dalio has this to say about culture: “in the end, what you need to do [with your people] is simple; remember the goal; give the goal to people who can achieve it; hold them accountable; and if they still can’t do the job after you’ve trained them and given them time to learn, get rid of them.”

Most people fear the ramifications of this last point and yet with a clear and agreed set of values and behaviours, getting rid of the bullies becomes an easy and necessary exercise.

An organisation is only as good as the behaviours that it’s prepared to walk past. Providing staff with the time and opportunity to redefine the culture and having tough measures in place to deal with those that contravene what’s been agreed goes some way towards removing the toxicity.

Then, and only then, can the organisation set about evolving into something where people feel belonging, safety, productivity and vibrancy. 

Colin D Ellis is a culture change expert. His latest book is  Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work (Wiley £15.50)

Image credit: Maurice Ambler / Stringer via Getty Images


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