Successful business leaders understand the imperative nature of staying abreast of company culture and making sure that it is supportive. When cultures become toxic, even established companies with great products and large customer bases can fail. Toxic cultures can lead to dishonesty, low morale, and a completely lack of accountability.
Unfortunately, cultures usually become toxic gradually, and leaders who are not paying attention may not notice until it is too late. For that reason, leaders need to be familiar with actions that can create a toxic environment, especially those that initially seem innocuous. Some of the ways in which leaders contribute to cultural toxicity include:
Participating in or contributing to unhealthy rivalry.
In many companies, some degree of rivalry exists between employees or even between departments. This rivalry comes from a good-natured place and pushes people to work harder and achieve more. However, competition can become harmful if allowed to go unchecked. An unhealthy rivalry can cause people to resort to inappropriate actions to “win.” This is counterproductive and hurts an organization.
When leaders intentionally pit colleagues against each other, self-interested behavior and information hoarding can be the result. Once these attitudes seep into the office culture, trust erodes quickly between team members. In addition, trust in leadership may be undermined if it appears that leaders facilitated this rivalry or did not take action to stop it. Healthy competition can push a company forward, but it requires an even playing field for all employees and a focus on the long-term goals of the company.
Failing to seek feedback or ignoring comments.
Companies thrive when everyone has the chance to provide feedback in an open and honest manner. Leaders need to appreciate that the feedback they receive from employees has the potential to improve their skills and strengthen the company. When leaders criticize employees—but establish no mechanism for receiving feedback on their own performances—tensions can mount quickly.
Employees who do not have the opportunity to voice their opinions, whether openly or anonymously, can feel unappreciated. As a result, these individuals may seek out work environments in which they feel they are making a real contribution. Leaders who do not listen to feedback cannot grow and will continue to make the same mistakes. This leads to high turnover rates and plummeting morale.
Placing blame where it does not belong.
One of the key traits of a positive, supportive workplace culture is accountability. When leaders begin to place blame where it does not belong, accountability is destroyed. While it is important to hold employees responsible for their actions, it is even more critical for leaders to own up to their own mistakes.
If a leader does not admit to his or her mistake or, even worse, tries to place the blame on other employees, then people start to feel insecure in their positions. They may believe that the next time this happens, they could be blamed and then their job might be on the line.
Lack of accountability can also open the door for distrust among employees. Leaders need to set an example in terms of openness and honesty about shortcomings and failures. Employees who see leaders admit to their mistakes and talk about how they will change are more likely to do to the same.
Allowing attention to be divided too easily.
Modern business leaders have a lot on their plates, which makes it easier to jump from one task to the next without actually getting anything accomplished. Leaders need to be able to prioritize the tasks before them so that nothing important falls through the cracks.
Since employees tend to take cues from their leaders, it should not be surprising that productivity at a company wanes when leaders do not allow themselves to be focused. Often, the tasks that go unaddressed have a direct effect on employees, whether that means slowing their momentum as they wait for approval of a plan or simply creating general confusion about what needs to be done next. Leaders need to have the flexibility to jump between tasks quickly when necessary, but they also need the tenacity to make sure that important issues are handled in a timely manner.
Taking out emotions on colleagues.
Everyone experiences overwhelming emotions from time to time. Great leaders understand how to keep their emotions in check. They do not allow their internal emotional state to negatively influence their interactions with other people. When individuals allow their emotions to control their actions, they can inadvertently act disrespectfully toward their colleagues through passive-aggressive actions or poorly-chosen words. This can create a ripple effect, as the person affected in turn takes out his or her frustration on someone else.
Leaders need to emphasize the importance of respect, which means addressing conflict in an open and fair manner so that it does not spill over to other people. A healthy culture does not tell people to push their emotions down. Rather, it encourages employees to deal with those emotions appropriately.