Dealing with a Toxic Culture Part 1: Where does it start?

Dealing With Toxic Culture Part 1: Where does it start?

What makes an organisation’s culture toxic? How can a culture that could be affirming and vibrant so easily turn sour?

In our book, Who Killed Creativity, we identify several ‘suspect’ characters who can be to blame. Some of the more common suspects are members of what we refer to as ‘The Control Crew’ – characters such as ‘Bully Bosses’ and ‘Major Oppression’. If creativity breeds successful innovation, these two culprits certainly typcially act to block success.

Outside appearances can be deceptive
Unfortunately, examples of toxic cultures are all around us. Often the toxicity can’t be detected by reputation alone, as outside appearances can be very deceptive. Instead it’s important to investigate what people feel and experience on the inside.

This can be evidenced in some of the more elite private schools. Typically, a lot depends on their reputation, including their large tuition fees, their prestigious position, and their alumni. In order to succeed on a monetary level, their ‘product’ (the education experience) needs to appear impeccable to an outsider. However, from the inside there can be reports of bullying and forced conformity.

One prestigious boys school was found to have covered up cases of pedophilia and bullying in order to maintain its aura of superiority and untouchability, and hence its reputation. But this protectionism came at the cost of its students. Students who may have excelled in one area, were forced to maintain the status quo through considerable peer pressure.

School is probably the first external culture any person really experiences. Highly insular, and extremely influential, children are left vulnerable as they are unable to identify when a culture is toxic. However, are adults more able to identify toxicity in their culture?

Enforcing conformity, or allowing for creativity?
Arguably corporate cultures in companies such as Enron acted as oppressors, seeking conformity to a rigid culture and protecting the elite. After the 2001 bankruptcy scandal the true nature of the company was revealed: a culture of secrecy through actions sucha as illegal document destruction and lack of accountability. To what extent does the need to protect reputation affect the behaviors of those in leadership? Apparently the top-down structure of many companies can be the cause of a toxic and oppressive culture.

It’s worth considering if your organizational culture might be toxic? Does your organization:

  • Care more about reputation than building a positive culture?
  • Enforce conformity or allow for creativity?
  • Cultivate secrecy or openness
  • Operate as a hierarchy or on a more egalitarian basis?

It takes consideration of every level of the organization to destroy toxicity and instead stimulate creativity. Let us consider the small acts that can make a big difference to not only the culture, but the ultimate outputt. Certainly, taking a step back and examining the difference between external reputation and internal culture can be an extremely telling and worthwhile experience.

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