Courage to Overcome the Toxic Culture

I recently had a mentor meeting with an emerging leader named Emma.

Despite having only worked with her big marketing firm for a year and half, Emma’s leadership skills were recognised pretty quickly and she was encouraged to participate in our leadership development programs. Emma is so excited by the idea of leadership. She really wants to make a difference and inspire others. Her passion for growth is contagious.

There’s only one problem Emma is facing at her workplace: culture.

Emma is acutely aware that her company has some culture concerns. Many of her colleagues, especially those in roles that support the marketing activity (such as finance and admin) have shared their frustrations about a lack of support, and high levels of stress. Decisions about the direction of the firm have recently been made, but these decisions are either not shared or explained. Emma’s heard her colleagues describe it as a “toxic” workplace.

So what should Emma do? Should she take this opportunity to learn and take a chance at trying to improve some of the frustrations she’s noticed? Or would stepping up mean she’d inherit challenges that are too big for her to resolve on her own?

Nominate today in the 2024 Outstanding Leadership Awards!

The terrible ‘T’ word gets used a lot these days- but what do we really mean by the idea of a toxic workplace? For me, it’s all about the vibe. Toxicity is something you can just sense. When you enter a toxic workplace you will likely notice that there is something off, uncomfortable or unpleasant. It’s the feeling you get when you walk into the lunchroom. It’s the way people greet each other in the mornings. It’s the conversations that happen after the CEO has sent an all staff email.

In a toxic workplace you might notice higher rates of stress and absenteeism. You’ll spot people who feel unheard and disempowered. There’s a heap of “where are we heading?” and a whole lot of “nobody told me.” At its most severe, a toxic workplace can lead to complaints, bullying, harassment and discrimination.

And just as toxins are bad for our bodies, toxic workplaces don’t do anyone any good. It’s obvious that being on the receiving end of unkind behaviours at work is unpleasant for employees. But research shows that even leaders who are involved in behaviours that undermine or insult their employees feel a loss of social worth. It’s a no win situation.

The good news for Emma is that there are ways to undo and disperse toxicity at work. And it can start with leaders. There are things that leaders, at any level can do to improve a toxic workplace.  Repairing toxic organisations begins with creating healthy and effective teams. The first step is supporting and developing your team with trust, recognition and honesty.  You can start small with meetings and conversations with your immediate team.

I also reminded Emma not to try and make the change on her own – gathering the support of like-minded other leaders and change agents would prove critical. Improving the health of a toxic workplace involves challenging the status quo. If we were unwell, we wouldn’t rely on one miracle worker to give us a quick fix. We’d make sure we had the right diagnosis; we’d seek advice and get a second opinion if necessary. Then, we’d make sure that everyone involved – the GP, the nurses and the surgeons were all involved in addressing the problem.

The next advice I shared was that communication is the key – and it can make such a difference in eradicating toxicity. There’s a distinct link between communication and organisational health – as Gill (2002) puts it “communication is the ‘blood’ of organisations and the ‘oxygen’ of change.”

Addressing toxicity requires decisive action; to paraphrase Drucker, no illness will be cured with procrastination. Another fitting analogy we discussed was “ripping off the band aid”. Instead of letting the unhappiness fester around the building, Emma and I spoke about opportunities for opening up feedback channels and discussing what could be done better. Emma agreed that listening and understanding were going to be part of the solution. I asked to focus on compassion and curiosity.

As we talked, what I was hearing from Emma was lots of passion, but also some self- doubt. Stepping up at a time like this was bold move, and she kept telling me she was struggling with confidence. I explained something that I cover in First Comes Courage. Many great leaders are not naturally courageous people. But the good news is that courage is a trait that can be nurtured, developed and grown with time. It can be built through experience, patience and endurance throughout our careers and our lives.

With all of her enthusiasm and positivity, I could see a great future leader emerging in Emma. My closing advice to her was to go for this shot at leadership, and have the courage to tackle the culture concerns head on.

What do you think?

By Sonia McDonald – CEO of LeadershipHQ and the Outstanding Leadership Awards, Leadership Coach, Global Keynote Speaker, Entrepreneur, Mum And Award Winning Author.

When Sonia speaks, she captivates everyone in the room, making each person feel like they’re engaged in a one-on-one conversation. Her authenticity and heartfelt delivery make her a compelling and motivating leadership expert and speaker, capable of sparking life-changing experiences. People often describe Sonia as sassy, inspirational, genuine, and memorable, with her high-energy delivery, humour, and practical advice empowering her audience and instilling them with the confidence to take courageous actions and inspire great leadership in all facets of life.

In addition to her dynamic speaking and MC career, Sonia is a renowned and award-winning author, with books such as “Leadership Attitude,” “Just Rock It!,” and “First Comes Courage” to her name. She is a contributor to publications like The Australian, HRD Magazine, BBC World, and Women’s Business Media. Her influence extends globally, having been recognized among the Top 250 Influential Women in the world and the Top 100 Australian Entrepreneurs by Richtopia.

Sonia’s expertise in leadership, culture, organisational development, neuroscience, compassion, and courage is internationally acknowledged through her leadership and coaching work and voice. She is also the driving force and CEO behind LeadershipHQ and the Outstanding Leadership Awards, further solidifying her status as a leader in her field.

Her clients have included Qantas, Australian Institute of Building, Tyro, Amazon, QSuper, Coles, Thiess, CPB, Air Services, Spell & the Gypsy to name a few.

Beyond her professional accomplishments, Sonia is a dedicated single parent with a deep commitment to supporting women in business and improving teenage mental health. She tirelessly travels and speaks both across Australia and around the world, all in pursuit of her mission to cultivate a world filled with exceptional leaders and exemplary leadership.