I have long been fascinated by the concept of culture and how leaders can shape strong, vibrant, and healthy workplaces. And over the past month, I have been contemplating how fragile culture can be. Like a garden, culture requires a tremendous amount of cultivation and attention to grow and blossom. However, it does not take much to ruin the best.Culture drives all aspect of corporate performance, everything from employee retention to profit. So, it goes that companies with strong, healthy cultures outperform those with more toxic environments. As leaders, we must constantly tend to our culture ensuring that we give our organization the ability to thrive.
Culture is all-encompassing and ubiquitous. Unfortunately, this means that a few bad behaviors can easily create a ripple effect in our organization and begin to erode—or even kill—culture. Be on the lookout for these five behaviors that quickly lead to a toxic workplace:
1. Big Egos
One of my favorite leadership books is Jim Collins’ “Good to Great.” In the book, Collins explores the notion of “Level 5 Leadership”—the leaders who possess a perfect balance of humility and indominable will. These are the individuals who have a high-degree of accountability and are more focused on leaving a positive impact on others, versus shaping their legacy. Though the concept is great, these leaders can be hard to find. Instead, we may find that our organizations are filled with ego-driven individuals. The individuals who become bigger than the mission themselves.
Big egos can be found at all levels of the organization, from the worker bee to the Director of Finance to the CEO. As such, it’s important that we not only spot and stop our own tendencies toward big egos, but also encourage those around us to remove their personal ego and to become humbler.
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As Level-5 Leaders, we need to focus on paying attention to the people around us understanding that they play a critical part in making a company and a team stronger. We need to attract, retain and develop the types of individuals who are accountable when things go wrong and the first to give praise to others when things go well. In short, we need to make sure our organizations are rife with Level 5 Leaders and free of big egos.
2. Lack of Clarity
If you lead a company or a team, ask yourself the following question: do my employees understand our vision and do I constantly communicate it and support an open environment for the exchange of ideas?
If you work on a team, ask yourself a similar question: do I work for a leader who clearly shares our team/company vision?
If vision is not well-articulated—whether at the company or team level—it can breed uncertainty, stress, frustration and concern among employees. Instead of feeling grounded and informed an employee can feel lost and nervous, which leads to speculation, gossip, stress, frustration, and worry.
To avoid this killer of culture, focus on developing with a clear vision and then consider how you will share this vision with others. For example, will you have quarterly Town Halls? Weekly one-on-ones with your team members? Create company-wide dashboards that alert everyone about how the company is progressing against its set vision? It’s just as important to craft a strong vision as it is to disseminate it clearly.
Nothing will kill culture faster than taking your employees’ power away from them and instilling an environment of micromanagement and disempowerment. When you take the most important asset in your organization and put guard rails around them, they begin to run on auto pilot; there is no quicker way to suppress innovation.
With competition fierce and customers in the driver seat more than ever before, businesses face increasing pressure to produce consistent, favorable results. But sometimes leaders confuse the need for consistency with the need to micromanage and disempower to maintain standards. And for other leaders, it is quite simply easier to give orders than to spend the time coaching and empowering individuals to live up to their potential.
To create a healthy, empowering workplace, you must invest in and empower people. This means encouraging your team to come up with solutions; creating environments that foster safe, supportive dissonance, and fundamentally believing in your people.
In many ways, bureaucracy and micromanagement go together. We’ve all experienced the bottlenecks that come with bureaucracy, or when layers upon layers of management, approval and delegation come between us and our initiatives. In lean times, we see different levels of bureaucracy pop up. For instance, suddenly employees who had been using corporate credit cards at their own discretion now need approval before making a charge. Or, we may observe added levels of approval being required for a simple administrative task. Similarly, when a business experiences massive growth, we can see the emergence of a “Wild, Wild West” environment in which things happen faster than companies can absorb them. Business often counteract this momentum by instituting more rules, policies, procedures and approvals.
Related Reading: How to Boil a Frog: The Slow Erosion of Our Values
When we create hurdles for our teams to jump through, a toxic culture gets created. Instead of being productive and efficient, we waste time and derail innovation. I have seen and worked with a lot of organizations that have had amazing revenue-generating ideas that never get off the drawing table because internal politics keep it from ever gaining steam. Instead of allowing bureaucracy to plague our environment, we need to support each other’s ideas, cultivate an open-door policy and build a culture that fosters innovation.
5. Never Offering Praise
Offering a kind word to someone else is one of the easiest things we can do as a leader, colleague or teammate, but it doesn’t happen nearly enough in the business world. Instead of complimenting our team member for hitting it out of the park during a presentation, we focus on the two things to do differently next time. Rather than offering meaningful praise when our colleagues complete a project, we may resort to a cursory “thanks!”
I believe that in business, there are some myths or phobias that exist surrounding praise that are not properly founded. Some leaders will use the excuse, “I don’t have enough time” while others may feel that giving too much praise can be a bad thing. But giving true meaningful praise is incredibly important to keeping teams motivated, building trust and celebrating the work of others.
In my leadership workshops, I like to remind leaders to “embrace an attitude of gratitude.” Spot the moments throughout the day where you can say something nice to someone else. More closely examine the work of others and find a way to offer meaningful, positive feedback. This will encourage others around you to do the same.
Culture is not static; it constantly evolves. It is fragile and if it’s not tended to properly, toxic work environments are created. It may start with one ill-conceived policy, one toxic employee, one ineffectual leader, but like a weed it can quickly overtake the organization. As individuals, we have aresponsibility to ensure that we are contributing to help create a healthy, supportive and positive culture. What’s more, if we see evidences of killers of culture, we need to act to address them in a positive way.