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Toxic leaders are poisoning your company culture

Long-term value and cultural transformation are hobbled when so much negativity is flowing from your lieutenants. Here’s how to fix it.

Toxic leaders are poisoning your company culture
[Source photos: Studio-Annika/iStock; venusphoto/iStock]
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There’s nothing worse than infighting in your team. The pettiness. The nitpicking. The tattling.  You’d think these are words that would be used to describe a kindergarten playground, but they are too often what we experience in the workplace. I’ve worked for numerous companies where the culture was stunted by the emotional growth of its leaders. And in many cases, the toxicity I experienced in the leadership team spread to the front lines. 

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The solution in this scenario is for leaders to learn how to self-manage their own toxicity through sometimes brutally honest feedback. Before I began my career as a leadership consultant, I worked at companies that had toxicity brewing in all levels of the organization. I witnessed one of my bosses intentionally ostracize members of his own team and publicly humiliate them. Naturally, this created anxiety and tension throughout. Everyone knew that no one was sacred when it came to his divisive tactics to gain even more power and control. And the higher ups never did a thing, even when I reported the behavior. I was fired once at 7 and a half months pregnant for taking a counterculture stance on excessive drinking in the leadership team, so my experiences have informed how I approach transformation. 

Here are the scalable strategies I’ve used to accelerate development of cultural change in the leadership teams of Fortune 1000 organizations. 

Get everyone on the bus—or get them off quickly

If you know you have toxic leaders, fire them. I’m not going to pull any punches, the only solution is to fire them. You need to flag a signal to the leadership team and the rest of the company that change is afoot and it’s time to pay attention. When you have toxicity you need to figure out what leaders are on board with you (your “ride or dies”) and then put the rest under a strategic review. 

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Explain why you took the actions you took, why toxicity must be eliminated and what you want to build moving forward. Explain what the ramifications for toxicity will be moving forward and remember to inspire your ride or dies to be your selected change agents and establish their commitment to creating it.

Lay out a clear path forward

Creating culture transformation takes time and requires an on-going commitment. The leadership team needs to see how you intend to accomplish your culture transformation. If you don’t know how, bring in a consultant. It’s important to recognize where you have strengths and weaknesses. Hire to cover your weaknesses and strategize to scale your strengths. Ultimately, you should be presenting a road map for change that has clear milestones and an executive sponsor for each line item. The surviving leadership team needs to be responsible for this change and held accountable along the way. 

Remember, to start with the low hanging fruit. So often when we want to create culture change there are small actions that create big impact, yet we receive a strategic plan that costs millions to implement. I like to use the Pareto Principle and look for the 20% of effort that gets me 80% of the results. And when I’m really pressed for time and resources I go through the 80/20 process on the list again to get the absolute minimum viable action to create transformational impact. 

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Last tip, make sure you have an end date to your plan. A 2-3 year vision is plenty and should be re-evaluated at that time for realignment. 

Create agreements on communication and accountability

The key is to keep it simple. Identify potential opportunities to scale along the way and to identify detractors and road blocks early. One of the most important parts of the process is to ensure you have created a framework to provide constructive feedback to each other as a leadership team along the way. You have to remember that no one else will hold you accountable to the vision, but each other. And everyone is watching your example. So think about how you’ll address the big stuff before you’re in the middle of it. 

  • What are the 3 or 5 actions your leadership team could take over the next 12 months to create a culture transformation? 
  • Who should be an executive sponsor for which action? 
  • How will your team hold each other accountable to the plan?
  • How will you measure whether or not something is working?
  • How will you provide constructive feedback to each other on your own compliance with the vision? 
  • Where will you track progress? And how?  

Check in regularly and report on progress

Your team should be meeting no less than bi-weekly to discuss the progress of the initiative. Make sure these aren’t fluff meetings. Instead, pull up your progress tracker, get updates and ask for metrics that establish where you are to plan. Hold each team member accountable to their targets. Also, remember that one of your roles is to set the example and to provide a lab for your leadership to practice the leadership strategies you are teaching them. You can create exercises that allow the leadership team to model and practice the types of behavior you want them to exude. And remember, you are the one everyone is watching. Hold yourself accountable when you misstep in front of your leadership team. This vulnerability will demonstrate your commitment to growth and show your humanness to the rest of the team.

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Make it fun and celebrate wins

Why are we so stiff at work? I find it laughable how different we often are in the office and at home. For myself, I notice I tell less jokes and my quirkiness is often turned down on low. I’ve been learning how to bring more of my whole self into work and I’m learning that my enthusiasm and energetic spirit is contagious. If you can make this process fun for your leadership team it will be even more effective. Tell funny stories of your missteps, what you learned and how you’ll move forward. 

Celebrate your wins! It’s amazing how much companies struggle with celebration. I’m not talking about a cake at Cameron’s birthday. I’m talking about the time I busted out a dance move in the middle of a meeting when I had a good idea the leadership team supported. Or wearing my hair in a center part the day because apparently side parts Gen-Xers look old. Who knew? Or even simply, holding regularly scheduled dance parties with my team. These are a couple of things that I’ve done to infuse fun into the workplace. Be creative and come up with your own. The key is that the fun needs to work for your team and actually be fun. 


Nichole Kelly is the VP of growth at Windward Consulting, where she focuses on elevating and demonstrating value and competitive advantage to Fortune 1,000 companies. She is also founder of  The Bipolar Executive, a website, blog and podcast dedicated to raising awareness of mental wellness at work and in our communities.

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