One of my favourite business quotes is "The fish always rots from the head."
It's a powerful quote because, whenever a problem in a company rears its head, it clearly puts the ownership on owners and senior management as both the cause AND the solution.
This perspective is especially true with company cultural issues, and even more so when a business culture has turned toxic. Too often in this case, managers and owners tend to place the blame on the rank and file employees rather than realising that the problem really started with themselves.
For any organisation to go toxic, there has to be an organisational structure, that allows the toxicity to take root and then to flourish.
Senior management may not be participating in the toxic culture, but chances are, they are enabling it by ignoring problems and turning a blind eye to festering issues.
So, as a leader, if you culture is becoming toxic, what can you do?
Using the "fish always rots from the head" perspective, the first and most important step is for management to take responsibility and not just blame a few junior employees for being troublesome. This is the hardest and most important step but it's critical to turning around an organisational culture.
After management accountability, it's time to talk to your employees. Do as many casual, one-on-one catchups as possible and preferably off site. Ask open end questions about the business, how they are enjoying their role, suggestions for improvement etc.
It's vital in this process employees feel safe to express their views openly without judgement or fear. However, like all employee feedback, take each one with a grain of salt as it will a mix of truthful facts and their personal stuff. Just sit, listen, ask and take notes. Try not to pass any views on what you are told.
After a number of conversations with employees, you will probably find common themes or trends. These are most likely clear signs of the biggest issues you need to address. They could relate to a number of core employees that need to be exited, process changes or issues with workload or general morale.
You can't solve all the problems so the key here is to identify 3 core issues to be addressed.
Get to together with your management team, outline the issues identified and brainstorm the potential solutions for each together.
It's vital all managers feel engaged in the change and the solutions proposed as they will be required to help implement change, so listen to their suggestions and try and get consensus on the approach.
Execute! Take the action plan, communicate whats happening to employees and do it.
Your employees will notice that they have been heard and see you making an effort to fix toxic cultural issues which will make them feel both valued and heard. Whilst you may not be able to fix everything immediately, the fact you are taking real steps will do wonders for morale and the culture in itself.
At the end of the process, it's important as leaders to learn. Take time out and ask yourself lots of questions.
Why did the culture become so toxic?
What red flags did I miss?
Why didn't I act sooner?
What are my lessons?
Taking ownership from top down is the most vital step in repairing a toxic culture. The fish ALWAYS rots from the head so if you find your business in this situation, stop, fix issues and take your lessons.
Founder & CEO