Article: How Successful Companies Can Have Toxic Workplace Cultures
From the outside, the PR makes it look like a great company to work for. The company is listed among the most successful ones. And the owners appear to be thoughtful and pioneering. But STOP before you proceed and just look around a bit more and heed the warning signs. I didn’t and I share with you my personal experience below.
Leadership is very closely tied to workplace culture. In fact if you look closely, you will find a workplace culture is a reflection of those leading it.
A version of this article originally appeared as my column in the Khaleej Times.
How Bad Bosses Hurt Employee Morale
First some simple truths …..Success and Leadership are not the same thing. And being a terrible leader does not mean y0u are an all around terrible human being. Now that this is clear let’s get down to business;-)
For some reason we assume that an organisation that is successful achieves that success due to the leader’s efforts. We forget that often TIMING CAN BE EVERYTHING i.e. being in the right industry at the right time so success happens in spite of the poor leadership at the top. In other words, a rising tide lifts all ships!
We witness terrible leadership every single day as follows:
- Leading by fire-outing i.e. using excessive workloads to set people up to fail
- The constant gamble on the next guy theory i.e. the explaining away of the revolving door of people to the next guy being “the right one”
- Drugging the workplace with short term success i.e. huge doses of dopamine tied to growth, versus focusing on long term stability and people
- Over control of all workplace routines and rituals such as calling too many meetings, demanding unnecessary reports, interfering with people’s work and consistent undermining of employees
- Inconsistency and Avoidance. The video often conflicts with the audio and people/situations are often treated as if they are invisible
- Construction of an insular bubble where one must always be right and anyone who suggests otherwise or threatens control is mercilessly struck down
This list represents the traits of terrible leaders yet so many of these leaders get to be successful (in the world’s eyes). Why?
Ever heard of social validation phenomenon i.e. it is much harder to question leadership that everyone accepts as the norm without being excluded for speaking up. In fact it is not rocket science…we follow the leader. The desire to belong is stronger that the desire to do what is right which requires moral strength. Standing around passively ensuring one is not singled out as the next victim is the modus operandi of social validation.
Then there is that desire to divert attention away from personal mediocrity. Mediocrity breeds more mediocrity and poor leadership hires for blind loyalty to sooth their egos.
In fact bad leaders continuously promote other bad leaders. According to the “Peter principle”, bad leaders only promote to the highest level of incompetence. A famous study by three Italian researchers (Pluchino, Rapisardo and Garofalo) confirmed this theory showing that promoting competent employees resulted in less efficient organizations. Mediocre organizations tend to promote people at their current level of skill instead of looking for the skill the organization requires to get to a new level. Bad leaders strive to keep things the same and get the job done with a minimum of interference. Visionary Leadership questions the way things are done and will stop work to get to the root problem and will stick their head out and be provocative. These latter type of leaders rarely survive in organizations with terrible leaders at the top.
And off course let us not forget the majority of bad leaders acting out relationship dysfunctions i.e. many unconsciously agree to live in inequitable relationships. If you speak of one’s incompetence within your chosen dysfunctional leadership group, the whole group will agree because clearly you are a leader and know best i.e. any suggestion otherwise reflects a distorted image of self as a leader clearly participating in a dysfunctional group.
Many companies still achieve financial success in spite of the above simply because the managers (not leaders) who “appear to be leading these companies by numbers” with the thrills of dopamine in the short term sure makes us believe and feel excited. But in the case of all dopamine rewards, that feeling does not last and these organisations are often weathered with a general lack of trust, no acknowledgement of good work or strong positive leadership emerging naturally in the organization, lack of transparency, little or no encouragement for employees to think, question or suggest and punishment of anyone who makes a difference or an improvement. The end result is an incompetent company culture with people keeping their heads low and watching their backs.
Are you part of such an organization?
Here are a few simple questions you can ask and answer yourself to find out if you are being lead by terrible leaders:
- CAN YOU CALL YOUR PARENTS? People following a good leader should be able to call their parents and say, “I’m so happy. You won’t believe what I did/ learned/ met today.
- CAN YOU CALL EACH CUSTOMER? Good leaders serve and honor their customers. If your leaders encourage you to be dis-honest and not transparent with customers, you are being led by terrible leaders.
- DO YOUR LEADERS HELP YOU PASS THEM? A good leader helps the people around them succeed past them. Great leadership asks the question, “How far can the people around me get?” As in physics, the power of a good leader is to transfer energy i.e the more energy transferred from the top, the more powerful the organisation and the more powerful the leader. Terrible leaders do exactly, addicted to a command and control environment fearful to grow leaders around them.
- DO YOU REALLY WANT TO BE IN A FOXHOLE WITH YOUR LEADERS? In the Marines you would never climb into a foxhole when your life depended on it with a anyone who does not mean what they say, bends the truth in favour of their own interests, only takes responsibility when they are caught, and is of questionable character
Questions are powerful since the answers will rise or fall to meet the questions asked. So keep asking questions and the truth about a workplace will reveal itself through it’s leaders. Or heed this warning, inspired by a Maya Angelou quote….”People/Workplaces/Leaders normally tell you who they are…believe them!”
Here are some signs if you are interviewing for a new job that you might be entering into this kind of workplace:
- The HR team is not at all involved your recruitment process. In fact you are told they would have an issue with you being hired. Evidences undermining of employees and an Leader that will override their efforts without consultation.
- The number of employees who are there more than a year is less than 10% of the current work-force and the company has already been in existence for more than 3 years. Evidences there is a major issue with this workplace culture i.e. employees run for the door once inside
- The Interviewer speaks down about his or her workforce being incompetent. Evidences ego and micro-management since nobody is good enough.
- There is absolutely no learning and development that is happening the company. Evidences this is not a people focused organisation so workplace culture will be non-existent
- We grew too fast and need to be agile is the explanation for why everything is wrong. Evidences inability to take responsibility and lead, mis-management, employees not being given the tools/support/direction they need to do an effective job etc.