“ Good humour is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keep friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment. ”

- Greenville Kleisser

How to Tackle a Toxic Culture

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Ever been in job where you mistrusted almost everybody? I have and I paid the price for ignoring my inner voice.

I was recently invited to meet a potential client community. I didn't call the meeting so I was not too concerned when scheduling seemed to take an awfully long time. I was happy to hear that 3 concerned managers would attend. I dressed for the occasion.

I had a fleeting sense of antagonism as I was greeted at reception by the contact client with a warning that I was 5 minutes early – as if it is a bad thing.

The three good men and I settled into the boardroom and after 5 agonising minutes, I had my bag clutched on my lap while my psyche searched for an escape route.

I was watching a mental boxing match. The topic was me. When, at last, the gentlemen disagreed to agree that I was a welcome impostor, a pregnant silence fell. The energy in the room was charged with a tangible mixture of anger and embarrassment.

Suddenly, all eyes were on me. The solution to this apparent mishap would be that I, the impostor, get to sell myself and my business. I was in a mood for neither.

Instead, remembering our social graces, we proceeded to discuss a safe topic - the evolution of their business. I was fascinated to witness Larry E. Greiner's classic work on Evolution and Revolution as Organisations Grow came to life as the story of the birth and growth of the company unfolded.

I was told about a highly creative and powerful entrepreneur, the Doyen of his field, who passionately and on a shoe string budget broke through and hit a jack-pot in a hot topic industry. A one-man show was faced with rapid growth. The Doyen was forced to surround himself with people, other than those he was selling his dream to.

As Greiner points out: “A company’s problems and solutions tend to change markedly as the number of its employees and it sales volume increase. Problems of coordination and communication magnify, new functions emerge, levels in the management hierarchy multiply, and jobs become more interrelated."

The "master networker and salesman" surrounded himself with a small group of like-minded people who could assist him to shape his creation. While the organisation was still small and nimble, things were great and there were many "buses to catch".

This creativity stage, according to Greiner, inevitably leads to a first revolution that he describes as the crisis of leadership and communication. As fired up founding members "catch more buses", there is no other choice but to employ more people. This round, the people they appoint, are likely to have a rather different profile to their own. This in itself creates problems.

Greiner predicts that the typical founding entrepreneurs are, by nature, neither wired for the mundane tasks of leading and communicating internally. They expect employees to “get it” like they do.
If the desire to be outwardly focused, expand and make money outweighs the ego's desire to control, some company founders move to appoint a good business manager who can give internal direction and structure to operations. Some don’t.

Soon managers and employees “get it” and adopt an internal locus of control coupled with the need for autonomy. They have come to possess more direct knowledge about markets and service than do their leaders at the top, consequently, they feel torn between following procedures and taking initiative on their own. Lower-level employees find themselves restricted by a cumbersome and centralised hierarchy.

This problem is solved when the top structure decides to delegate appropriate responsibility and empower managers to act autonomously.

As top-level executives’ sense that they are losing control over a highly diversified field operation and move to attempt a return to centralised management as to regain control.
Formal coordination systems are put in place and managed by top level executives. Managers still have a great deal of decision-making responsibility and they learn to justify their actions more carefully to a watchdog audience at headquarters.

A lack of confidence gradually builds between line and staff, and between headquarters and the field. The many systems and programs introduced begin to exceed their usefulness. A red-tape crisis is in full swing.

Collaboration becomes the new topic for evolution and focuses on building a more flexible and behavioural approach to management. Often, this “softer” approach goes against the very grain of a typical founder.

After hearing the story of this company’s evolution, I was less surprised by the REVOLUTION that played out in the first 5 minutes of our meeting. And, as the dialogue became more constructive during our discussion about the company’s EVOLUTION the topic of mistrust emerged.

Mistrust between “upstairs” and management. Mistrust between managers and their teams. Mistrust in, and between teams. Mistrust everywhere…An "invisible" but tangible gaping abyss...

I was amazed that a company with such a captivating history and inspiring cause ended up here.
I have studied to topic of TRUST with vigour in my personal life, my business and my client settings. It was only when I stumbled upon the nimble thinking of Baroness Onora O’Neil that a paradigm shift occurred in my thinking:

“ More trust is not an intelligent aim in this life. Intelligently placed and intelligently refused trust is the proper aim.” - Onora O'Neil

Trust is a multi-faceted and complex issue in companies. Trust is also the main element for healthy dialogue. Managers are trust conduits and while personal integrity and good intent might be valued, more is at play in organisational settings. Management’s intent gets interpreted through multiple networks of relationships, behaviours, decisions, stories and events.
I have seen perfectly trustworthy managers get blamed for contravening company values based on misinterpretations. I have heard the story of the ogres at the top a thousand times, only to meet very warm and intelligent human beings in those very seats.
Fact is, there will not be more trust in organisations, unless the Executives and Managers demonstrate trustworthiness.
The eloquent work of O’Neil suggests that people intelligently place their trust. Thus, flipping the idea of giving more trust to the untrustworthy to the simple, but not simplistic challenge of demonstrating more trustworthiness.

What does trustworthiness look like?

1. Honesty – saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
2. Reliability – doing what you say you are going to do at the standard and deadline you promised.
3. Competence – having the right mix of knowledge, skills and attitude to do a great job in your respective role.
4. Vulnerability – Making yourself appropriately vulnerable by showing empathy, admitting a mistake, saying you are sorry, asking for help, sharing your insecure feelings or sharing proprietary information that might be helpful to others.
5. Perceived Common Ground – The degree to which employees perceive management to share and reflect their own values, beliefs, norms and hopes

Unfortunately, in this test, anything less than 5/5 is not "good".

If I was invited to give the 3 good gentlemen advice I would pose the challenge of a difficult question. Starting at the very top seats of the company, right down the hierarchy to its very seams:

"To what extent, do I demonstrate each one of the 5 TRUST ingredients, given my respective role in the company through the eyes of the people I am responsible for interacting with?"

Forget about trust in and between employees, teams, management, executives, clients and suppliers if the scores are low. Even if they do not say it out loud, most intelligent people instinctively trust the trustworthy.

Unfortunately, in the current business climate, many people stick to their jobs regardless if they are happy or not, for fear of facing the cold out there. Don’t be fooled, the fact that they are there does not mean that they are “all there”.

Purposeful co-creation cannot be sustained unless people choose to be fully present feeling healthy, safe and invigorated to innovate and perform at their peak.


Last modified onWednesday, 06 May 2015 13:52