Toxic Organizational Culture: It Starts at the Top

Kayden Manning, Director of Development at Center for Respectful Leadership 

I bartend at a specialty wine bar in my spare time. It’s a great way to meet people and the extra money goes into my student loan payoff fund – plus the owners are wonderful to work for. They are incredibly community minded and regularly participate in outreach and financial support for the neighborhood. When I’m there I truly feel like I’m a part of something much larger than myself. While there we’re often booked for events and this past December we hosted 3 separate corporate holiday parties in a single weekend. Two of the groups were awesome. They were cheerful, personable, respectful, and I was more than happy to accommodate them as silly unexpected requests came up throughout the night. All in all, they were a joy to serve.

The third group was an absolute nightmare

It was as if I had stepped into the twilight zone and emerged in a Mad-Men era drama. From the moment this group of employees stepped through our doors they continually insulted and complained about our menu, our owners, the event space, and each other. To be blunt, they were rude people. I couldn’t understand the swing in attitude – everything about their party package was exactly the same as the two previous groups; the only thing that had changed was the crowd. Then the company’s Founder/CEO came up to the bar and shed some light on the situation for me. “There’s nothing palatable on this menu,” he snapped loudly, “I can’t believe we booked this place.” I gave him my most polite smile and prepared to ask how I could serve him better when he turned to a much more junior employee that had been waiting at the bar. “We need to hire hotter girls here!” he roared. Both I and the employee froze; how does one respond to such a statement? The poor young man uncomfortably laughed along before desperately ordering a cocktail strong enough to knock him on his you-know-what.

Suddenly the stark contrast all made sense. This CEO was comfortable with being openly rude, and everyone else at the company felt empowered to follow suit. This work culture was toxic and myself and every one of my fellow bartenders knew it.

What that CEO didn’t know, or perhaps was willfully ignoring, was that when it comes to matters of business the ultimate culture creators sit at the top; and he was creating something awful. But why does this matter? If they’re all rude people and comfortable with that shouldn’t we leave them be? Well, this particular company sold specialty food products in our area. They are rapidly growing but by no means a top contender in their market. Myself and each of my coworkers were customers of their products; or at least we used to be. They not only directly lost about 15 customers that night, but I can imagine that poor junior team member won’t be sticking around too long after fielding chauvinistic comments directly from his CEO. What a waste of talent! Clearly if this CEO wants to retain the team that has propelled The Center for Repectful Leadership to success he’s going to need to give them a reason to stay.

In his defense, no one had given him a reason to change just yet. It is impossible to make a sweeping change to workplace culture unless leadership first acknowledges that something is wrong. Because you are here I can only presume one of three things:

  1. You are experiencing a talent or profit bleed as a result of toxic culture, and already know that an overhaul is in order.
  2. You are starting your own organization and want to create a strong culture that both helps your people thrive and benefits the bottom line.
  3. Someone sent you this article with a quick “thought you should see this.” This is one I like to consider an intervention of sorts – and you should take note.

As speaker and author Scott Burken once empasized, “Every CEO is actually a Chief Cultural Officer. The terrifying thing is, it’s the CEOs actual behavior, not their speeches or the list of values they have put up on posters, that defines what the culture is.”While most powerful in the hands of C-level leadership, the recommended steps I’ve outlined below are absolutely applicable for any level of leadership. This process is intended to help you craft a workplace culture that represents your organization and its values positively to your customers and employees. And it starts with you deciding what sort of company or team you want to work for.

Author: Web Spangle

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