Toxic cultures have had a high profile of late, whether it’s the Dallas Mavericks or the Los Angeles Lakers. Given this, it’s easy to fall into a “I’m glad it’s them and not me” mindset. But the truth is there’s no shortage of toxic managers. I wrote about one study showing that a whopping 76 percent of bosses are considered toxic.
It invites the question: With so much attention on toxic cultures of late, and with so many contributors, might you be one too without realizing it? Now, I’m not talking about contributing to toxicity in obvious ways like intense micromanaging or having a hot temper that flashes all too often. I’m talking about things you do that aren’t as obvious or might even be rooted in the best of intentions. So look out for these five unwittingly unhelpful behaviors, the most covertly damaging ones I’ve witnessed over a three-decade corporate career.
1. Passively enabling.
Some of the most toxic managers I ever worked for didn’t appear to be so on the surface. In fact, they had no inkling they were major contributors to a toxic culture. It was about what they didn’t do versus what they did–they were passive enablers.
This includes being out of touch with an organization enough that you don’t know where the problem employees are or the effect they’re having (or even worse, choosing not to do anything about them). This kind of passivity includes not just toxic people per se, but also not addressing underperformers. When a leader knowingly lets underperformers carry on, it drags down morale (especially among high performers) and sends a message that the leader doesn’t care enough to create an environment of accountability and fairness.
If you don’t know what you might be being passive about, ask employees you have the best relationships with–they’ll tell you.
2. Not role modeling balance.
It might seem harmless enough to role model intensity, a desire to win, dedication, and passion. Heck, I wouldn’t hire a leader without all of this. But you also have to be certain to show equal intensity for work-life balance. This is especially true if you’re respected, as people will emulate the pace you set or at the very least feel terribly guilty if they have to engage in their job differently from the way you do because of other things in their life.
Today’s leaders simply can’t afford to role model the wrong thing on the work-life balance front. There is no shortage of studies showing the importance of flexibility and balance to employees in today’s workforce–so show ’em how it’s done.
3. Unevenly giving recognition.
Sometimes it feels like no good deed goes unpunished, right? You take the time to recognize two team members for doing something above and beyond, but then you hear through the grapevine how disappointed others on the team are for not being recognized.
Nobody is saying you can’t reward stand-out individuals. This is about ensuring you’re not just feeding the tallest sunflowers, but are nurturing the entire garden. My experience shows this is easily solved by starting from a place of caring about the entire organization. It will lead to small, daily ways to recognize others, like stopping by their desks to thank them for something they did well or giving them kudos right after a meeting (i.e., it doesn’t always have to be big gestures).
4. Holding information too close to the vest.
You think, “I don’t want to inundate them with too much” or “They don’t really need to know this, they just need to stay focused on what they’re doing.” Reasonable ruminations, but slippery slopes.
The key with any information you hold is to ask yourself, “Would this materially help the employees do their job better or understand something important?” And while it can take a lot of work to properly share information, it’s worth it to avoid the downsides. You don’t want employees feeling out of the loop, unable to do their best work, undervalued, or untrusted.
5. Not balancing reality and hope.
There are two traps here. The first is doing the right thing as a leader and sharing a realistic, even if tough, picture of where things stand in the business, but then failing to give employees hope that there’s a way out of the malaise. The other trap may be even worse: painting a rosy picture about the future and trying to fire up the troops without having any of the aspirations grounded in reality.
The first trap contributes to an environment of gloom and doom and nothing is ever good enough, while the second trap creates a dynamic where truth and transparency aren’t valued. Get the balance right on this one.
All in all, be intentional to create the kind of culture you intend.