03 Mar 2020

Negative Culture = Negative Leadership

When you hear the phrase ‘they have a negative culture’ (or worse ‘they have a toxic culture’) you don’t have to look too far to see what is creating the environment. In almost all cases when we have worked with businesses (either doing the work or pitching for work), the negative culture is matched by negative leadership.

This negative leadership manifests itself in a variety of forms, but they are all very easy to see – particularly from the outside looking in. In many cases, the behaviour of the leadership group exhibiting negative traits has been accepted by the people around them as ‘that is just how it is around here’.

Some of the obvious negative leadership traits include:

  • making excuses for poor behaviour,
  • blaming others for mistakes that they have made,
  • ignoring the poor behaviour of themselves or people close to them,
  • favouring one group of people over the other,
  • publicly belittling staff,
  • using offensive or demeaning language to staff, and
  • using aggressive and intimidating behaviour.

Some of the more subtle, but equally negative and destructive traits to a culture include:

  • seeking training courses to ‘fix’ problem staff without wanting to do any training themselves,
  • a refusal to acknowledge their part in poor behaviour,
  • lack or personal adherence to the company values, and
  • passive aggressive responses (such as talking behind a colleagues back and not dealing with issues directly)
  • not sharing their own faults or areas of improvement (the superman/woman complex)

One fo the most difficult things to deal with as a leadership coach and cultural change facilitator is when it is obvious that the greatest problem of an organisation is with the behaviours of the senior person in the business – and they will not acknowledge it.

Several years ago I was asked to work with a business and help address their ‘negative culture’. It didn’t take too much effort to see that the greatest problem was with the leader. The business was only small (less than 15 people), but had turned over 20 staff in less than 3 years! Harassment and bullying claims had been made, and the CEO was known for ‘flying off the handle’ when things didn’t go her way. With her team, she publicly stated that her default response to being challenged was aggression – yet she would not look at her own behaviour. Although she had a coach, it was clear that the coach could not (or would not) address the elephant in the room – the CEO’s behaviour and lack of adherence to her own company values.

As sad and frustrating as it was, we had to walk away. They say that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t lead certain people to acknowledge or address their negative behaviours, even when it is obvious it is having a vastly detrimental effect on their business.

When it comes to negative cultures, you don’t have to look too far to see the root cause of the problem, and it is most often with leadership.