Hire for positive character traits in addition to appropriate skills and performance, say Dave Winsborough and Gaynor Parkin. (File photo).
OPINION: If you have 20 minutes spare and an urge to peer behind the curtain, read about the independent review of Mediaworks culture.
The review found there was a boys’ club culture of hard drinking, racist and sexist behaviour and intimidating sexual harassment. “Only hire hot,” was advice on hiring women. Led by white party boys, the company demographics looked like this:
New Zealand European: 82.9 per cent
Other European / Australian: 7.9 per cent
Māori: 6.1 per cent
Chinese: 2.0 per cent
Pasifika and other ethnicities: 1.0 per cent
Although over half the people spoken to had witnessed sexual harassment and wanted the company to change the independent reviewer noted that some leaders still believed the complaints came from people who were “disgruntled” and “not cut out for the media industry”. Also noted: most workers still “loved the industry”.
When we wrote recently about the problems toxic leaders create and gave tips on surviving toxic bosses it was exactly this kind of behaviour and culture we meant.
How do you prevent toxic leaders and a toxic culture?
Cultures do not arrive ready-made. They are the outcome of choices made about people, goals and behaviours over a period of years. They are especially a reflection of the leadership of a company: what and who those people most value. In understanding a toxic culture, look no further than the leaders of the firm.
It follows then that choosing people who have good characters increases the chances of a positive culture. The core ingredients of good leadership, namely competence, humility, and integrity, are universal and they are always preferable to the alternative: arrogance, incompetence, and dishonesty. Sadly, it is well-established that leaders tend not to hire people different from themselves (see research here, here and here), increasing the chances for the growth of a bro culture.
That leads to two clear actions to prevent a toxic workplace:
Firstly, hire for positive character traits in addition to appropriate skills and performance. Good hiring means relying less on interviews (in fact, experiment with blind auditions, as orchestras do to reduce a bias towards hiring men) and instead use sound and objective personality and ability assessments, alongside a tightly structured interview.
Secondly, the business case for diversity is overwhelming. If you doubt this, then consider that the most dynamic and attractive cities in the world are all melting pots: London, Singapore, New York. There is a direct correlation between high-skilled immigration and an increase in the level of innovation and economic performance in cities and regions. Firms with a higher proportion of female senior leadership perform better than those with low or no female leaders. A company that welcomes people from anywhere can do business with anyone.
Weirdly, toxic leaders could not hold their positions without the collusion (forced, unconscious or willing) of people around them, or if the checks and balances at firms and public institutions worked to expose them. Power, position and prestige act as an insulation for those who hold them, and followers rarely call leaders to account.
As social primates humans like to be in the good books of leaders and may excuse many misdemeanours to keep things harmonious. The fable of the emperor wearing no clothes is deeply revealing of human psychology and no one wants to be the bearer of bad news about a leader’s own toxic behaviour.
To pierce this insulation and hold people in power accountable for their actions requires three things:
A clear statement about how to behave so no one is in any doubt
As an example, here’s an excerpt from what NZ company Mainfreight expects of everyone:
Tear down the walls of bureaucracy, hierarchy and superiority
Eat together – use mealtimes as a discussion time
Don’t beat up your brothers or sisters
An enduring company is built by many good people, not a few
It also requires internal institutions (like the board, a competent HR function, or a union) who have the power to hold toxic leaders to those standards.
A competent board and people function
If your organisation has a board, it is ultimately accountable for the wellbeing of staff: mental health and staff wellbeing is as much a priority as lost-time injury rates and sales and any competent board will want to understand turnover rates, unusual departures and see the engagement and wellbeing survey.
There is no value having codes of conduct or policies for harassment and bullying if there is no competent HR (or People and Culture, People Operations, People Experience, Employee Success or any other name) function. HR should also have the trust of staff to hear complaints, a mechanism to complain anonymously, and the backbone to call out bad behaviour. That was not the case at
MediaWorks – indeed, the people function was called out for not acting, despite many complaints. We understand that in too many organisations complaining to HR would be about the last thing any sane person might do. So turn to your union representative. And to reiterate – if you are being harassed or bullied put exiting the company high on your list of options. No job is worth your mental health.
Make sure there are mechanisms for capturing (and acting on) feedback
The science of gathering feedback about a manager’s performance via 180-degree or 360-degree feedback is well established. A well-designed survey provides followers with an important voice and can identify toxic leadership patterns. Similarly, wellbeing or staff engagement surveys identify the emotional state of followers – and of course, the job of any competent leader is to make their followers successful and confident.
Speak up and share observations
Airlines have long taught aircrew to speak up and share their observations to counter to human tendency to defer to those higher in the hierarchy. Crew resource management training teaches self-awareness, enhanced situational awareness, assertiveness, decision-making, conflict management, and listening. A NZ company one of us is working with has recently instituted just this kind of process to ensure higher levels of psychological safety.
Organisations and people languish under toxic leadership. Fight the power.
David Winsborough is the chairman of NZ’s largest organisational psychology practice Winsborough Limited, and is founder and chief psychologist of Deeper Signals, a business that helps people build self-awareness and change their toxic behaviour.
Gaynor Parkin is an author, speaker and chief executive of Umbrella Wellbeing who provide people strategy, wellbeing, resilience and mental health awareness training to corporate and government agencies.
WHERE TO GET HELP
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline, open 24/7: 0800 111 757.
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Youthline: 0800 376633, free text 234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
What's Up (for 5-18 year olds; 1pm-11pm): 0800 942 8787
Kidsline (aimed at children up to age 14; 4pm-6pm weekdays): 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline)
Rainbow youth (LGBTQ youth helpline): (09) 3764155
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