I recently read in Harvard Business Review an imaginary case study posed in the form of a question: Can You Fix a Toxic Culture Without Firing People? At the end of it, I was nodding an emphatic YES! I know you can fix toxic cultures. But it requires significant behavior changes and vulnerability.
Why? Because toxic leadership behaviors are at the root (no pun intended) of most toxic cultures. The business follows how leaders act and what they do, all the way down to the front line.
When you look at the behaviors that connect to a toxic culture, truth-telling is right at the top of the list, if not at the very top.
Leaders believe their people tell them the truth. But in many cases, people don’t feel safe telling them the truth because they fear the repercussions of giving those leaders bad news. And, on the flip side, employees don’t always believe their leaders are telling them the truth. And if leaders aren’t being truthful with each other, then they sure aren’t going to be truthful to the rest of the business.
Every year, Edelman has conducted the Trust Barometer, which looks at a wide variety of aspects related to leadership, trust, truth-telling, etc. across a number of segments, including business, government, media, and non-governmental organizations around the globe. In the 2013 report, Edelman reported that 82% of people don’t trust their boss to tell the truth. And the more recent Trust Barometer report (from 2016) stated that people believe peers and employees are more credible than leaders. Even more troubling, LRN’s State of Moral Leadership study from 2018 found that only 17% of employees say their leaders almost always state the truth.
Yikes! So what does this lack of trust mean for leaders and companies? Take this example of GE where a recent Washington Post article highlighted the effect of a culture that didn’t support truth-telling:
Then on Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal placed the blame for the “rot at GE” on former CEO Jeffrey Immelt’s “success theater,” pointing to what analysts and insiders said was a history of selectively positive projections, a culture of overconfidence and a disinterest in hearing or delivering bad news.
The repercussions for GE are far-reaching and include things like not being a member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average because it was the worst performing stock, losing almost half its value, and having to sell off long-held businesses.
There are three issues at work concerning trust and telling the truth: employees don’t believe their leaders or managers are telling them the truth, employees believe leaders don’t want to hear the truth, and leaders believe they’re getting the truth when they’re really not. The resulting disconnect is what leads to poor performance, or worse.
Three Reasons for a Lack of Honesty
In their book, What Are Your Blind Spots?, Jim Haudan and Rich Berens highlight five key problem areas for leaders. The fifth blind spot focuses on Truth. In this chapter, they dig into the reasons people don’t tell the truth. Among those reasons are:
- Leaders cling to inauthentic power – status, rank, possessions, and authority.
- I have more than you.
- I am more than you.
- I know more than you.
- Employees are afraid to tell the truth.
- If I tell the truth, it could be an indictment on my past performance.
- It will look like I’m not on board with a strategy or approach.
- I don’t want to offend anyone.
- It might look like I don’t know what I’m talking about or don’t have it all figured out.
- Leaders don’t create a culture of truth-telling mainly because of their own secret fears.
- This criticism is an indictment of my leadership ability.
- I don’t know how to turn critique and dissatisfaction into powerful forces for change.
- I’m concerned that if I admit I don’t know everything, I’ll lose people’s respect.
- I don’t know how to have truthful conversations that foster productive and positive candidness.
Repairing a Toxic Culture by Building a Culture of Truth-Telling
All these dynamics about truth-telling contribute to culture – the beliefs and behaviors of the organization – and to effectively righting a toxic one. If people can’t have honest conversations – outside the bathroom, at the coffee station, or in the hallway – at all levels of the business, it’s tough to see growth, innovation, productivity, and higher levels of engagement.
Here are three ways you can build a culture grounded in truth:
- Embrace vulnerability
When leaders open up about what they’re thinking and feeling – particularly if it’s a concern about something that affects hundreds or thousands of people – it makes people want to help. And people really do like to help. They want to feel like they’re contributing solutions to a problem. It also helps them feel less alone and it validates their thinking as well – “This person understands me.”Also of importance, vulnerability means admitting when you’re wrong and owning it whole-heartedly.An essential step is for leaders to go first if they want to see real change happen. The business needs to see the leaders doing the things they’re calling for such as sharing concerning news, admitting they were wrong or just demonstrating empathy that the change is difficult, that it will take time and there will be missteps. When leaders go first, they have shown it is safe for others to follow.
- Build a safe haven for critical conversations
The onus is on leaders to create the environment that allows everyone to ask questions and share concerns. And it starts with assuming positive intent and a lack of judgement.Conversations and questions, not lectures, are also the order of the day. Because dialogue is essential for people to internalize change and build that deeper understanding of what’s required of them to bring that change to life.
- Use humor and visuals
Drawings and visuals can be powerful conversation starters. Ask any political cartoonist about the effect their comics have had on public political commentary. Why do they work? Because they show tough or troubling situations in a comedic light. The humor also works to take the focus off the person and places it squarely on the issues. In their book, Haudan and Berens acknowledge that visuals help people “see their feelings in a picture.” It validates that how they feel is okay. Defenses automatically drop and the mood lightens.Plus, visuals are always far more effective – regardless of the content – than just a litany of facts and figures.
As the saying goes, honesty is the best policy, and that’s never been truer than it is today. Overcoming a toxic culture starts with honest conversations
Does all this sound or look familiar? What did you or your organization do to change the culture of your business?