The Fish Always Rots From The Head: Toxic Cultures
NOVEMBER 22,2017 | MANAGEMENT | By SARA KELLY
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 puts the ownership on owners and senior management as both the cause AND the solution.
This perspective is especially true with company cultural issues, especially when a business culture has turned toxic. Too often, in this case, managers and owners tend to blame the rank and file employees rather than realising that the problem started with themselves.
For any organisation to go toxic, there must be an organisational structure that allows the toxicity to take root and 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, what can you do as a leader if your culture is becoming toxic?
Using the "fish always rots from the head" perspective, the first and most crucial step is for management to take responsibility and not just blame a few junior employees for being troublesome. This is the hardest and most crucial step, but it's critical to turning around 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 enjoy their role, suggestions for improvement etc.
In this process, employees must feel safe expressing their views openly without judgement or fear. However, like all employee feedback, take each one with a grain of salt as it will be a mix of truthful facts and personal stuff. Just sit, listen, ask and take notes. Try not to pass any views on what you are told.
After several conversations with employees, you will probably find common themes or trends. These are likely clear signs of the most significant issues you must address. They could relate to several core employees that need to be exited, process changes, workload issues, or general morale issues.
You can't solve all the problems, so the key here is to identify three core issues to be addressed.
Get together with your management team, outline the issues identified and brainstorm the potential solutions for each together.
All managers must feel engaged in the change and the proposed solutions as they will be required to help implement change, so listen to their suggestions and try and get a consensus on the approach.
Execute! Take the action plan, communicate what's 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, making them feel both valued and heard. Whilst you may not be able to fix everything immediately, the fact you are taking tangible 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 the top down is vital 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
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