Leadership and toxic work culture

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By CPA Sylvia Karaba

Over the past year, I have been hearing people speak of toxic work culture during various meet ups; in weddings, funerals, chamas, church ministry sessions and family gatherings. These conversations constantly end with statements like; I left my job for my peace of mind, others say, I am losing my mind, while others assert that I cannot take it anymore. Toxic work culture is slowly becoming the number one factor driving attrition.

On the other hand, I see information overload on company’s social media pages and websites with psychological safety policies and procedures. Organisations highlight and show case importance placed on diversity, inclusivity and mental wellbeing which is used as a strategy to attract new talent as well to retain employees. However, toxicity at the work place seems to be on the rise yet these policies/procedures covering these aspects are marked as ‘zero tolerance’. In addition, most organisations have values/codes of conduct that are meant to guide the conduct and behaviours and set the tone for its interactions with clients, employees and stakeholders.

The unsettling question then becomes why these policies/procedures are not efficient in reducing or eliminating the work place toxicity. Or is it that employees are finally feeling empowered to call it out. Toxicity at the work place can take several forms. It can be anything from bullying, lack of appreciation, micromanagement, disrespect, violation of trust, racism, nepotism, unethical behaviour …employees feel unsupported, unvalued, unheard and unsafe which affects employees productivity  and mental wellbeing. It seems like there is insufficient commitment by the leadership.

Ideally, leaders should not be the cause of workplace toxicity but often times they are. Organisational development experts Steve Gruenert and Todd Whittaker have observed that “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” A lot of leaders do not realize that tolerating toxic rock stars is propagating culture delay. In most instances, toxicity is endured for as long as results are delivered. Leaders including Human Resources look the other side at times and admit that these rock-stars, deliver what shareholders expect, thus their ‘inability’ to act. They portray themselves as helpless but this has dire consequences on the other employees as this culminates into a very unstable atmosphere and greatly affects the quality of work life.

Organisational culture has a huge impact of performance and productivity and cannot be ignored. It is paramount for organisations to provide a conducive and healthy working environment. We are in times where the world of work is changing in terms of workforce and workplaces.

 Recent studies show that Gen Z and millennials currently make up approximately 38% of the global workforce and this percentage will rise to about 58% by 2030. This workforce has been found to be less tolerant of toxic work environment than the older generation and have a higher preference of remote working.

The work place has also evolved, with most organisations having a hybrid working environment. Remote work environment can swiftly turn toxic if remote employees think their input is not considered in organizational changes that also affect them. Toxicity can rise as well if, there is; more praise for onsite employees, limited information and provision of inadequate equipment for remote employees.

Below are some statements that can point to toxic culture;

  • My boss calls me when am on leave to ask about my sales target
  • I fear to taking leave or going to hospital 
  • When you make a mistake you are punished
  • Policies are not applied uniformly; leaders do not follow the core values. Leaders demean/criticize employees in meetings.
  • Bullying is accepted for as long as you deliver
  • We will replace you just like that, so I’d watch it if I were you
  • This role is not encouraged for women with small children 
  • Here you don’t give your opinion, do what you are asked to do
  • Leave your personal issues at home, we all have issues, we are here to work, stop whining.

What are the effects of toxic work culture on employees?

  • Mental health illnesses especially depression, anxiety and stress. Toxicity has a profound impact on mental well-being.
  • Low productivity due to stress and burnout
  • Attrition, employees leave to secure their peace of mind; why stay where you are not valued/appreciated?
  • Low enthusiasm and negativity, the unhappiness may then seep negativity into the organisation affecting others. It’s important to remember employees spend at least 40 hours a week at work
  • Decreased feelings of psychological safety in employees.
  • Pervasive office gossip leading to increased interpersonal conflicts. These conflicts can ultimately destroy teams.

The below are some of the deliberate steps leaders can institute to eliminate toxicity

  • The tone from the top must change and visible action taken if leaders are to drive the culture change required. Leaders must then walk the talk, model the values/good behaviour.
  • Infusing organisational values to every aspect of the business. These values should be clear and well defined.
  • Develop culture metrics; “what gets measured, gets managed.” These to be reportable from departmental to the Board level. Accountability is key.
  • Leaders must provide psychological safety to all and provide room for constructive criticism/ feedback, have a two way feedback model. Provide safe environment for employees to speak up including anonymously. Always provide feedback on concerns and grievances raised.
  • Leaders must continuously assess the organisational climate. This helps leadership understand why people working in an organization feel more or less motivated when carrying out their professional obligation. An action plan is created for the desired organizational climate with leadership influencing the underlying factors that will help reach the objectives.
  • HR to acknowledge their role as a neutral party as opposed to the unwritten rule that “human resources is not your friend, but is there to protect the company”. HR plays the critical role of being the stimulator and steward of the organisations by developing strategies to ensure that employees feel valued and engaged in their roles.
  • Foster open and assertive respectful communication and eliminate one sided communication which tends to affirm dominance.
  • Leaders should be empathetic and have high degree of emotional intelligence.
  • Understand what employees need to be creative and resourceful, not just what needs to get done.
  • Cultivate a culture of learning from mistakes, and eliminate blame culture
  • Learn the insecurities and fears of your employees and share your own.
  • Provide opportunities for growth and development e.g. having last Friday of the month for self-development across the organisation or a meeting free day.

Though we cannot predict the future with absolute certainty, it’s clear that the world of work is first evolving, just as the world itself is. In the same light the future of working will also shift along with trends affecting workforce and workplaces. As such the organisational culture cannot be ignored.

Although there are no magic bullets to detoxify a toxic workplace, it goes beyond letting go the bad apples. Leaders can turn around a toxic culture through strategic actions and follow through their commitments. With the continuous evolution of the future of work, let’s all remember that-“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” — Aristotle. 

The writer is a Seasoned Banker, Internal Audit professional and Leadership Enthusiast.


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