Addressing adverse cultures and behaviours in the workplace

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When we start in an organisation, we can sense the atmosphere. We usually feel it is positive to justify our decision to join.

As time goes on, we notice the negative and toxic aspects that are always present, even in the most exemplary business. The behaviours of some colleagues or leaders contribute to the negativity and toxicity.

How do these cultures come into existence?

Individuals carry out these behaviours to gain more power, control, and privilege. An individual can do this, or a group comes together to create a zeitgeist.

Once this happens, the sense of what is acceptable changes, from respect and compassion to destructive and awful. This then produces a pervasive atmosphere in which most must work and comply or become involved in also being destructive.

What people use and tolerate can vary from minor actions such as gossip, over-competitiveness to more serious deeds including fraud, bullying, and harassment. The impact of these will depend on their frequency, intensity and seriousness and the effect on those who are the target or just in the organisation. The overall aim is to stifle, suppress, and demotivate, so people forget their own worth. A false claim that someone is misusing their computer may be minor but could have a very significant impact on the person, especially if they consider they are honest.

Awful cultures can continue, once established, through the actions of current leaders and employees, even if created by those who have left. They endure because the instigators may like this type of culture, or not know what else to do, or there is not sufficient oversight or interest to warrant bringing in a more positive approach. Overall, we need three conditions for adverse cultures to continue; individuals who feel justified in using negative behaviours, permission for their continued use, and a failure of leadership and internal justice systems to identify and address the negativity.

The behaviours

There is an easy to identify list from minor behaviours such as negative competitiveness and gossip, hypocrisy and lying to larger acts such as abuse of power, fraud and corruption, discrimination (often indirect), bullying and harassment. It is rare for these behaviours to be used singly and often people will use a range of these actions. Why do people use them?

These behaviours will have developed over time and the person is likely to have learned them either directly or vicariously in environments that facilitate their use. This can be in childhood and then corroborated in adulthood. Individuals who use these behaviours, with a few exceptions, are not secure in themselves and therefore want to dominate the situation. Or they want revenge or see others as a threat with little evidence to support their views.

They may not have learned a wider repertoire for positive leading or interacting with people. Such personalities will disengage, morally, from the impact of their acts. They will probably carry on with their actions and habits because they won’t have had feedback.

People who bully, for example, are likely to select individuals who aren’t assertive, acquiesce, and feel insecure or threatened. The impact of such actions is always negative for those who are the targets. The psychological effect of these behaviours is huge and distressing for recipients and the overall culture of the organisation, even if they are infrequent. For example, occasionally using silencing, ridicule, withholding information, and shaming.

As noted above, if there has been permission (direct or tacit), then we will see these behaviours. What also happens is that others feel they can behave unethically.

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For us to decrease the use of these adverse behaviours, we need to help people who are the targets, identify how to help the individuals using these acts and work to improve the environment. Humans can change once we understand the need because we are flexible in terms of our neurology.

Having been a target, choosing to act will depend on how strong you feel and your assigned power in the organisation. Remember that being the focus for these acts is not your fault. If this is not the right time, think about what you can do to keep yourself safe. Perhaps talk to your manager or seek professional help from a coach or counsellor.

If you decide to act, then the first step is to speak to the person using the behaviours, ask them to explain and change. It is important to first practise what to say while relaxed. Focus on specific events and not generalities. If the meeting goes well, then work out a plan for change. If you cannot speak or the meeting fails, then talk to a senior leader or Ombudsperson for advice on next steps.

If you are the manager helping the person who is carrying out these actions, remember that they are likely to feel threatened and insecure. Having verified that their behaviours were problematic, meet with them and provide an agenda in advance to help them relax. Start the discussion by outlining their positives. Choose one or two instances and ask for their perspectives on each situation, their rationale for using those behaviours and what were the consequences and impact.

Agree a plan for change with them and identify what you will do to help them throughout the process. Plans should include mechanisms for building self-control and self-reflection through feedback and adopting and practicing alternative behaviours for interacting. This will work for some and, for others, all you can expect is more appropriate behaviour but limited internal change.

At the systems level, first acknowledge that the negative exists and needs to be tackled. Subsequently, work on building collective responsibility to promote positive behaviours and address negatives without recrimination. Leadership should also show the expected behaviours and encourage others to do the same. We also need a practical internal justice system and associated policies.

Anna EliatambyAbout the author

Anna Eliatamby is a clinical psychologist, workplace well-being expert and author of Healthy Leadership and Organisations: Beyond The Shadow Side, out now priced £14.99.

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