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 – negative leadership. 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.

As mentioned in a recent Forbes article, 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’.


Overt Negative Leadership Traits

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.

Covert Negative Leadership Traits

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 of the most difficult things to deal with as an Executive 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.

Negative Cultures Start With The Leader

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.

We experienced a similar case with a male CEO of a small firm. Similar turnover of staff in the same time frame, and similar ‘vibe’ of the business – everyone went quiet when the issue of negative culture and leadership came up. We were asked to develop an executive leadership program that addressed the teams ‘lack of resilience’, rather than being asked to address the behavioural issues that were at the crux of the issue – the leaders poor behaviour towards his staff. When we discussed this issue, it was deflected and excuses were made – and we didn’t get the work (which wasn’t surprising).

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. Without going overboard on metaphors, a leopard can’t change it spots, a scorpion will always be a scorpion, an a toxic leader will always be a toxic leader.

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.