How to shift to a culture that is inclusive, sustainable and high performing

David Liddle explains what firms can do to transform toxic cultures and create healthy and harmonious workplaces

Imagine working in a team where you fear being humiliated by your manager or colleagues.  Where people are afraid to speak out, where diversity leads to adversity, where colleagues are in constant conflict and where managers abuse their positions of power. Sadly, as some recent headlines illustrate, this is the lived experience of many good people in the workplace.

The list of organisations facing criticisms of bullying, sexual harassment, racism and misogyny is growing, and this begs the questions: how have we got into such a situation, what is going on, and how can organisations transform these toxic cultures and create happy, healthy and harmonious workplaces where everyone can thrive?

Where it begins

Toxic cultures often begin with small pockets of poor behaviours, unresolved disagreements, and microaggressions in teams, departments and divisions. These poor behaviours begin to combine, like a noxious gas, into a toxic team climate. Our actions, interactions and reactions (AIR) define the nature of our relationships, and it shapes our experience of the workplace. The AIR that we breathe out becomes the AIR that others breathe in. 

When these toxic climates are not addressed, they begin to combine and aggregate. The noxious fumes travel down our corridors, affecting every corner of the organisation. Before too long, they tip the organisation into culture shock, quietly and stealthily destroying its very foundations.  

What has become clear to me is that there are deep-rooted structural and systemic issues that lie behind this build up of toxicity. In these organisations, there will be colleagues who look the other way for fear of speaking up. Leaders who treat these issues with at best a lack of regard and at worst outright disdain. Complex people issues are ignored, or subcontracted out to line managers who lack the skills or the necessary support. 

It is not possible to resolve toxic issues at work by standing under the eaves of the workforce. The key is to listen to people, really hear them and seek to genuinely understand what is going on for them right now. Only then can organisations take the action required to address these issues at source. 

Transforming mindset, language and behaviours

Shifting the organisational mindset from retributive to restorative is a great place to start when addressing culture shock. This shift will result in a more civilised, constructive and collaborative approach to delivering accountability, restoring trust and addressing the root causes of toxicity.  

In practice, this means taking a person-centred approach to resolving issues early, by encouraging adult, respectful dialogue when things start to go wrong. It means making sure managers are equipped with the courage, confidence and competence to spot conflict and poor behaviour bubbling up, so they can nip issues in the bud before situations escalate and behaviour becomes ingrained. And it means using proven approaches, such as mediation, coaching and facilitated conversations, to help people understand the impact of their behaviours and get working relationships back on track. 

I call this transformative justice, the adoption of which calls for several key elements to be in place:

  • An acceptance by everyone, from senior leaders to employees on the ground, that the culture has turned toxic and that this needs to be resolved.

  • A recognition that it is everyone’s responsibility to resolve it, and everyone, from management and HR to unions and employee representatives, needs to play their part.

  • A new rules-based system that holds us to account but engenders positive engagement, openness, trust, transparency and dialogue.

The shift towards transformative justice needs to be treated like any other complex and critical project – with planning, resources and clear terms of reference and objectives.  

We need to shift the dial away from the rhetoric, hand wringing and calls for retribution that we have seen in response to the headlines of recent weeks. Instead, we must all focus on taking positive action to call out bad behaviour, and to develop fair, just, inclusive and people-centred systems that will protect relationships and build trust.  

If organisations are to recover from these damaging and costly toxic explosions, we all need to focus on creating cultures where dignity is preserved, diversity is celebrated and dialogue has primacy.

David Liddle is CEO and chief consultant at The TCM Group and founding president of the People and Culture Association