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Written By
Jordan Alexander

Ask an executive coach: How do you repair a toxic culture you’ve inherited?

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Table of Content

Table of Contents

Before the new executive, Kate, has a chance to find the best lunch spot, she’s called to a meeting by HR. The water cooler rumours about the finance team – one of the many functions she had just inherited – were spot-on.

“This isn’t the first time either,” Joan, the head of HR, begins. “Bill tells inappropriate jokes and intimidates others with his condescending manner. Today, someone claimed she was passed over for promotion as Bill gave the job to his friend.”

She sinks into her chair, shocked by the laundry list of Bill’s behaviours. Is Bill, who was made manager for his star performance, not cut out for the role? How will Kate repair a toxic culture that started before her time?

How a toxic culture starts and ends

The truth is this toxic culture started long before Kate arrived. It began when discrimination, sexual harassment, or unethical behavior first went unchallenged. It persisted as bad behaviours were ignored because individuals delivered results. It evolved into cliques that gossiped and actively excluded certain individuals.

Toxicity infects relationships and work practices, impacting employee wellbeing, job satisfaction, overall performance, and, of course, the bottom line. Let’s not forget the costs of absenteeism and presenteeism, as well as the damage to customer brand loyalty and your reputation as an employer. The “Great Resignation” is far from over, and if Bill’s behaviour is the reason people are leaving, it’s time to detox.

Here’s the thing: A toxic culture can be repaired, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t quick. Culture is described as “how we do things around here.” You can have posters with company values and fancy coffee machines, but culture is mostly intangible, more of a workplace feeling or personality.

My change guru, John Kotter, spoke in Auckland about the invisible elastic bands attached to all the office furniture that hold a company’s culture together. I have this visual where you close the file cabinet, and it moves the desk chair, which bumps the rubbish bin and tips leftover Kung Pao chicken onto the carpet. 

Kotter didn’t use that example, but he did emphasise how everything is connected to culture. Before you grab the kitchen sink, MIT Sloan suggests we start by fixing leadership, social norms and work design. “But how?” I hear you ask. Let’s start at the top.

Team leaders: Help or hindrance?

Have you ever told someone they have an ugly baby? Neither have I, yet every time I share culture audits with CEOs, I’m sure “ugly baby” is what they hear. 

Having worked with leaders for 20 years, I’ve noticed that workplace culture remains an enigma. Yes, leaders do know culture is important. Over 90% of CEOs and CFOs in North America rank culture as one of the top three determinants of results, among other factors like strategy and innovation. Most (over 80%) say they want to do more to make it healthier, yet nearly all of them admit they don’t take the necessary action.

I figure part of the pushback is because, as leaders, like parents, we take pride in what we create and are fiercely protective of it. Unfortunately, willful blindness won’t help Kate, Joan, and Bill. Toxicity is dangerous, even if only in pockets.

Our situation requires a two-phased culture repair: long-term and short-term. The former starts with Human Resources capturing the desired culture shifts and revising processes, policies, and corporate documents like a company’s vision, purpose, and values. But in the short run, let’s see what the repair looks like for our team.

How team leaders can repair a toxic culture

The worst thing Kate could do is ignore the situation. Fortunately, she believes that creating a healthy workplace culture is the most important thing she can do as a leader. 

Step 1: Prepare for a 1:1 with Bill

a) Establish a baseline

Kate assesses her “baseline,” like a weigh-in at the start of a diet, so she can track progress down the line. She asks Joan in HR for quantitative and qualitative data that will help set expectations for success, such as the engagement scores for Bill’s team, her other direct reports’ teams, and the company overall. How does turnover compare? What do exit surveys say? This evidence will help Kate craft key messages for the repair.

b) Leverage positive conflict

Kate will prepare for constructive conversations with Bill by learning how to create positive conflict opportunities. By understanding conflict management styles, she will be ready to explore tough topics and find solutions together. She will encourage her direct reports to do the same, as she knows managers spend two out of five working days a week resolving workplace conflicts.

c) Brace herself for backlash 

Remember the R.E.M. song, “Everybody Hurts”? Well, that’s what happens when Kate starts repairing the toxic culture issues. The topics will generate an “ugly baby” response not just from Bill, but also his team, colleagues, and others in the organisation. An intervention may bring relief to those who have been “suffering in silence” but may come across as an overreaction to others. Everyone will have an opinion about what is going on, and Kate will rely on every EQ skill she has during the repair and afterward.

With these in mind, Kate schedules a 1:1 with Bill to address the elephant in the room on an individual level.

Kate explores the situation with Bill, understanding both his position and the impact of his actions on the complainant. Immediate remedies may be required to “stop the bleeding.” Addressing his alleged biassed recruitment, Kate clarifies and coaches Bill on ways to implement changes where necessary. She may also offer to facilitate a discussion between Bill and the complainant with HR, depending on the complainant’s level of comfort. 

Now, Kate must make it clear that Bill has two choices. If he isn’t interested in playing nice, he could decide not to change and opt to leave the team. Or, as is often the case, he may be open to improving the situation when confronted with the impact of his behaviours. In the latter case, he will need significant support to re-wire his unhelpful tendencies. And while Kate has no control over what Bill decides in the long run, she’s up for the challenge. 

Except that isn’t the end of the story. We can’t call it a day just yet, because this article is about repairing toxic cultures. What else can Kate do, on top of these 1:1s with Bill,  to focus on the wider team?

Step 2. Build relationships

a) Partner with HR

Working with Joan to collect data strengthens the relationship and support for Kate in her detox journey. Joan shares details of the company’s values and purpose, what has worked in the past regarding Bill’s behaviour, and the bigger corporate picture. Rebuilding trust is a key part of the relationship process.

b) Get buy-in from fellow executives

Armed with facts from HR, Kate may enlist support from her peers around the executive table. The CEO is on board. The top tier agrees to be her eyes and ears over the coming months and to share feedback with Kate in real-time to maintain momentum. Kate is now ready, with the backing of her peers, to engage with her direct reports.

c) Engage your team

Kate begins a “how we do things around here” dialogue with her direct reports, as it is timely for a new leader in the company to reset expectations for behaviours and consequences. They workshop scenarios (including anonymous accusations made about Bill’s behaviour), discussing their impact on staff and how to handle them. Kate encourages a free and frank exchange about the role of leaders in building culture. Collectively, they set behaviour expectations and agree on a “Team Charter” that sets a future path.

Step 3. Kickstart culture change

a) Communicate – a lot

Kate provides a clear rationale for why action is needed, which helps her managers sing from the same song sheet. Communicating who’s involved and where people can go to find out information or provide comments is essential. She also builds trust into the process by ensuring people have access to someone independent to raise issues with, like an Intellect coach and HR business partner.

b) Model desired behaviours

Kate walks the talk to inspire her managers to act. They all need to pull together to drive change and repair the rifts. Each manager, including Bill, must commit to creating a healthier environment. Small steps are okay, but if undesired behaviours surface, immediate action must be taken. Time is of the essence, and everyone’s watching to see if you back the words you say with remedial action.

c) Collaborate on the bigger picture

Kate ensures the repair process includes team time to discuss issues beyond everyday behaviours. Time is allocated for recalibrating norms, work design, and synergies. Does the team start meetings on time? Are roles clear and workloads fair? Do team cultures in regions line up with corporate HQ? This will unearth the dysfunctional microcultures that no longer serve the team. Kate wants to hear all voices and, if necessary, provide access to guidance on how the team can unlearn unhelpful habits and accept her mandate for change with courage and confidence.

How HR can repair a toxic culture

Joan loves people; it’s why she’s the head of HR. However, she knows that “71% of employees admit to not trusting their HR department enough to report bullying or harassment.” That’s why she’s heartened that the new hire Kate is taking the situation with Bill seriously.

Joan is keen to help repair Kate’s short-term situation and sees the opportunity to capture attention at the top for the long run. Joan will:

Step 1. Own the situation and follow up

Joan has been reporting suspicious trends in the turnover and engagement data for a while, and it’s time to call a spade a spade. Kate provides the catalyst for Joan to dive deeper and wider into the causes and repairs for the company’s culture. She will use Kate’s team as an example to leverage learnings when reporting to top-tier leaders. Quantifying true costs will help top-tier leaders maintain focus on the consequences if they allow a toxic culture to continue.

Step 2. Coach and support leaders

Most leaders talk about the importance of culture, but only 29% consistently walk the talk. Joan’s team will source coaches and training to empower Kate and her managers with leadership skills, such as the ability to motivate employees using their language of appreciation. HR will assist in the repair process, helping leaders rebuild trust with the appropriate conversation starters.

Step 3. Roll out DEI initiatives

Few organisations (19%) have processes to support their desired culture. Joan wants to ensure her company is one of them. She feels initiating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) conversations will help breathe new life into company values by redefining what “respect” looks like in action. Raising awareness of the benefits of DEI for teams, individuals, and the company is something Joan is passionate about. Kate has agreed her team will “go first” as she sees how the DEI sessions fit hand in hand with the repair.

What about other team members?

It need not take a new leader to start to repair a team’s toxic culture. You know what they say: If you see something, say something. If leaders are responsible for setting expectations, and HR ensures that policies and practices are congruent, what can you do?

Every individual has a role to play. Employees need to learn how to communicate openly with their managers, highlight what’s working, and escalate situations where the reality of workplace culture isn’t aligned with expectations. Managers rely on everyone to be the eyes and ears of creating a healthy workplace.

If you struggle to speak up, an Intellect coach can help. How you present yourself, frame your feedback and what you hope to achieve when raising an issue can often be clarified in one session. We can also be with you every step of the way as you transform toxic setbacks into a healthy environment where everyone belongs. Here’s to your happy and healthy workplace culture!

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