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Toxic tone from the top

By Chris Sheedy

Toxic leaders exist only if the culture allows. What does a toxic tone from the top look like, and how can it be changed?

At her first job interview after graduating from a Law degree in the 1990s, Katriina Tahka learned an important lesson about the way the business world worked at the time.

The senior partner, who was sitting next to the law firm’s HR manager, questioned the young graduate on why he should even hire her: “You’re going to get knocked up and leave!”

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have helped to tone down a lot of this type of behaviour in companies around the globe, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. This example is just one of many challenges that staff in workplaces ruled by toxic leaders continue to navigate on a daily basis.

“My sense of what has happened is that the definition of ‘toxic’ is changing and adapting,” said Katriina, now CEO of A Human Agency (A-HA!), having eventually left the field of law to move into HR. “In the ’80s and ‘90s we had a lot more overt bad behaviour. Then came a higher level of awareness about what was appropriate and now what we see as toxic has become more refined.”

Terrible behaviour still exists, she noted, but the “new toxic” is less overt and more difficult to identify at face value.

It’s the sort of behaviour being called out by the Financial Services Royal Commission – decisions made by leaders that don’t pass the sniff test, charging ongoing fees to dead people, hiding vital information from customers and paying male graduates more than female graduates.

The senior partner in the law firm who interviewed Katriina for the role, she said, is likely still operating along the same lines, just in a different way. “That’s if the organisation’s culture hasn’t gotten rid of him,” she said.

“If they kept on tolerating him, knowing he’s like that, then the business has allowed the toxic individual to survive. So, then I would ask, isn’t the culture to blame as much as the person?”

Spotting a toxic boss

In a blog for Psychology Today, Jean Kim M.D. explained the eight traits of toxic leadership.

Briefly, they were:

  1. Unwillingness to listen to feedback
  2. Excessive self-promotion and self-interest
  3. Lying and inconsistency
  4. Lack of moral philosophy
  5. Rewarding incompetence and lack of accountability
  6. Lack of general support and mentoring
  7. Cliquishness
  8. Bullying and harassment

Doing an office detox

The Huffington Post reported research that revealed:

  • 75% of workers say their boss is the worst part of their job;
  • 65% of employees would prefer a new boss rather than a pay rise.

If the numbers stack up, it’s not a good comment on the state of our workplaces and the competence of our managers.

What can people in a workplace do to ensure they never suffer the misery and indignity of a toxic boss?

“Companies that are doing well are actively not allowing a toxic culture to develop,” Katriina said. “They are very clear on their values, and it’s not just coffee-cup stuff like, ‘We act with integrity’. It’s actual values that are lived and breathed, and if you behave counter to the values there are genuine consequences.”

The best way to develop such a culture is to create an environment in which people genuinely understand that they can speak up. They must also know that they will be speaking in a safe environment and that when they do, somebody will listen and will act.

So often in today’s businesses, Katriina said, those who speak up are treated as a troublemaker. They are made to feel guilty. When that happens, the culture that develops is one in which staff never report or admonish bad behaviour, and suddenly it is allowed to flourish.

“We set up ‘employee listening sessions’ for our clients who want to understand what their culture is really like,” Katriina said. “That’s what great businesses should do anyway – it’s so simple.

“But the number of times I do listening sessions and people say to me, ‘Nobody has ever asked me before how I feel about this’, is amazing. I did one a few months ago and the person said, ‘I’ve been here for 20 years and nobody has ever asked me how I feel about things.’”

Know your values

In order to drive a culture that doesn’t accept toxic behaviour, the business must be very clear about what it wants to represent and what are its values.

“For example, one of our values at A-HA! is care,” Katriina said. “We talk about caring for each other and caring for our clients. If you behave in a way that doesn’t align with care, you’re called on it. That’s very different to an organisation where you walk in and it’s all about competition and power and testosterone.

“Success is about bringing your values to life and therefore turning values into behaviour. Get it right and you’ll hold on to, and attract, the very best people. Get it wrong and there is a very high cost. Good people will simply walk away.”

This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of CA Australia.