Most business cultures have only minor negative shadow elements, e.g. gossip. Only a few have high levels of toxicity.
But, regardless of the extent to which negativity is present, it will always have a significant impact on some, if not most, employees. We lose billions of dollars every year because of poor productivity linked to negative cultures.
We can all describe what exists in these cultures, from the people who are adverse and present to the observed emotions and behaviors (because most of us will have experienced these as participants and, perhaps, actors).
How do these cultures come into being and continue?
Use and acceptance of distasteful behaviors
The actions of some employees create and maintain damaging cultures, and they often come into being more quickly if the person is a leader. These acts, even if minor (such as shouting once a week), can be enough to create an atmosphere in which people are fearful and wait for the next outburst.
Minor adverse behaviors, if repeated often enough, can lead to these actions being normalized and sometimes copied because ‘that is what we do here’.
The continued use of a more awful behavior can mean staff believe that it, e.g. corruption, is an accepted practice.
Working in such cultures can also make people think chaotically and forget that common decency and professionalism should be the norm. There is often poor morale, high levels of stress, fear, and uncertainty. These are not conducive to work, especially now, as we are all recovering from living through the pandemic.
Most who use these behaviors are often very insecure in themselves or may not know how else to be as leaders and colleagues. They then grab the power they see or have and misuse it to control others. A very few will display characteristics of sociopathy, Machiavellianism, or narcissism. Often, individuals with these qualities will be undiagnosed and reluctant to change.
Regardless of the reason for choosing these deeds, people often continue to utilize them because it is very exceptional that we will give feedback and ask them to adjust.
Limited collective accountability and responsibility
If there is not a sufficient and robust infrastructure to encourage the use of positive behaviors, then wrongful cultures can emerge, maintain and continue. Most human resource policies will describe principles and actions to take (should negative behaviors emerge). But sometimes their scope and interpretation are limited. Managers, leaders, and human resource personnel can also be reluctant to enact them.
It usually falls to managers, with human resource colleagues, to work with individuals who contribute to negativity. It is difficult to work out what to do to even have such conversations. They require a blend of courage, human resource knowledge, expertise, coaching, and counseling skills. And this sometimes means that we do not hold such conversations, and we move the person to another department.
It is also unusual for employees to be given opportunities to learn and understand expected positive professional behaviors and the consequences for negativity. We can cover such expectations in induction or training, but often there is no follow-up to ensure that learning translates into behavior. A manager (who shouted and dominated), having been part of intensive training on ethical and unethical behavior, felt that all she needed to do was lower her voice but not vary what she said.
Organizations can also send the person on a leadership training program or offer coaching. Such interventions, with a few exceptions, rarely directly tackle the behaviors that contribute to an adverse culture. Leadership programs are ordinarily conceptual, and we often leave it to the participant to think about what and how to change. Coaching can focus on the behaviors, but there is, sometimes, no real guarantee that there will be actual transformation post-sessions.
Staff may not trust internal justice systems, even if they exist, because of the perceived lack of confidentiality or a belief that there will be no difference if they report. There could have been a survey on negative behaviors and the findings shared. Some may not believe that there will be adjustments, especially if the worst perpetrators are in charge or support those who act destructively.
Embedding decency and collective accountability
What we need is a concerted and holistic effort to tackle negative cultures (even if they just permit the use of minor distasteful behaviors). And we need clear and sustained support from the leadership. If we do not fully meet these conditions then negative and adverse cultures will continue.
Leadership teams need to re-establish trust and the requirement for common decency and respect. This can start with leaders and others in responsible positions showing respect and decency in their words and actions. People may not believe this at first, but they will, if leaders continue, trust and change.
Collective accountability for the use of positive and professional behaviors and a willingness to address and tackle negative and wrongful deeds as and when they occur are vital factors.
Because human beings are fallible and someone will, eventually, be negative, even if it is just for a moment, the atmosphere should be such that people feel they can apologize (and then show they mean it) if they have been adverse in a small way, and that they can ask for help if they see or carry out more serious transgressions.
These new behaviors require patience and understanding that people will take time to adjust. They need to recognize that it is necessary to change, and are given help to know what else to do and to practice the new behavior, so it becomes embedded in their repertoire.
All the above interventions need to be put in place such that the culture remains positive regardless of who is there. This will avoid what we often see – cultures changing from positive to negative and back again because of who is or becomes part of the leadership.