Culture is defined by the actions of managers — or lack thereof

By Colin Ellis

Friday December 13, 2019

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The University of Melbourne is just the latest in a long line of organisations branded with the ‘toxic culture’ brush. The healthcare sectorconstruction sector, and of course, St Kevin’s, have all come under the microscope with regards to their modus operandi of late with most responding inadequately to the challenges they face.

Toxic cultures don’t happen by accident. They are the result of continuous neglect of the working environment and the tolerant behaviour of those that work within it. Time and again, excuses are made for the lack of appropriate action in the hope that a bigger news story comes along to sweep it all under the carpet.

Yet, the employees that work in toxic cultures don’t get a break. Every day, they have to show up and do their best work, while certain individuals who are known to management continue to perform or behave poorly in the hope that they can get their way and hold everyone back.

If you’re looking for someone to blame — and it’s often rife in toxic cultures — then look no further than the people allowing them to behave in this way.

Managers are paid more money to deal with this specific issue than those that report to them.

Managers are paid to set expectations, and then to make sure work is delivered in line with these expectations. When expectations aren’t met, then they’re paid to deal with it, fairly but firmly.

This isn’t another ‘the old ways are the best ways’ piece — because the so-called ‘old ways’ and their tolerance of this nonsense got us into this mess in the first place. It’s a statement that organisations don’t provide managers with the skills they need to get the job done properly and don’t invest any kind of money or time in defining the culture they need to meet the values that they have.

The results? Poor financial performance, project failure, increased mental health leave, low staff engagement rates, loss of key staff and, in rare cases, expensive court cases that expose senior management inaction on culture for what it is. After all, you’re only as good as the behaviour that you’re prepared to walk past.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Proactive senior leadership teams recognise that for people to be their best selves and perform to the best of their abilities, they have to feel safe.

When Google surveyed its teams in 2017 and asked them what their number one attribute of great teams was, psychological safety came out on top.

Amy Edmondson is the authority on psychological safety, and in a 1999 paper, she described it thus: “Psychological safety describes the collective belief of how team members and leaders respond when another member puts themselves on the line by asking a question, reporting an error, or raising a difficult issue.”

In toxic cultures this doesn’t happen. Leaders ‘blame throw’ and make excuses for those people that they’d rather not deal with. So employees take the only action they feel they can: they withdraw, do what they need to do to leave the office as soon as they can and provide feedback via the staff engagement survey, in the hope that someone takes notice.

But people rarely take notice. More consultants are employed to tell senior leaders what they already know. An email is sent out to everyone saying ‘that kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated anymore’ and things will carry on regardless.

Addressing toxic cultures requires firm action. It requires organisations to reject all behaviours that don’t line up with the values that they have. To do this, they have to ensure that everyone has the skills to do their job to the best of their ability, and where they are unable to do so, they are treated swiftly and empathetically. There is often a process and it should be followed.

“Only then can the integrity and reputation of an organisation be maintained and only through a vibrant culture can it achieve the goals that it has.”

Addressing a toxic culture requires courage, determination and a commitment to build a safe environment for all. By addressing poor behaviours rather than walking past them, management can demonstrate how seriously they care for the welfare and happiness of their people.

Colin Ellis is a people and culture expert from

Originally published on our sister publication Smart Company.

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