Here’s a quick organisational health check for you. If any of these sound familiar, you may be in a toxic organisation under questionable leadership.
I’ve spent the last decade and a half investing top dollar in my self education, attending numerous trainings/workshops/conferences, reading over 30 books a year, and seeking out mentors all in a quest to build my businesses. A substantially large portion of resources was put into increasing my knowledge in the areas of leadership, management, culture, and later parts of the years were more focused on self development. These are also some of the most widely available and heavily marketed topics in various formats. Why? Because these are the critical success factors for any organisation. And if you noticed, these areas are all ‘people’ focused. The People, the tools that The People use, how The People are rewarded, and the environment which The People operate in are determining factors on how well an organisation will run.
“Research indicates that workers have three prime needs: Interesting work, recognition for doing a good job, and being let in on things that are going on in the company.”
— Zig Ziglar
Today, instead of writing about what one can do and should do, i’m going to pen down the traits of a toxic organisation, and as research has shown is a symbol of leadership.
1. STRUCTURE MISSING
Ever had a team member pass information to his/her manager’s manager instead of the manager? or has the manager’s manager passed on instructions to the team without first informing the said manager?. When information doesn’t flow through the right channels, it causes a myriad of problems for the organisation. Managers are unaware of changes in plans, managers unclear of the team’s workload, staff are left confused unsure of who they should take instructions from, managers are unsure if they should be directing their team or wait for the boss, missing information, misinterpreted information, information going to the wrong people, and the list could go on and on. Without the respect and discipline to use the structure, productivity, efficiency and innovation go out the window in a jiffy.
What we refer to as spaghetti management. Picture a bowl of spaghetti, thats how a bad leader manages and how information flows in an organisation like this. Messy as fuck you say? Well, as the saying goes “the snake rots from the head”. Such an organisational culture is created by leaders who often mistakenly feel that:
A) I am the boss, i should be able to shoot of instructions to whoever i want whenever i want (ever got a non-urgent text from your boss at 11pm? or commenting on a tiny irrelevant operational issue?)
B) Getting reports from everywhere is a good thing.
C) They lose power if they don’t occasionally flex
An efficient organisation has a clear written structure and The People respect the structure, they may not respect the people in the seats but they respect the structure and utilise it to their advantage (which are many!).
2. NO RECOGNITION
If big public recognition of wins is non-existent or far and wide, and celebratory events seem to be a lacklustre affair, is a clear indication of a very negative environment. An environment if you notice, that is steeped in fault hunting, gossip, and low trust. Celebrations bring joy and everybody needs to feel joy and happiness, so an environment devoid of such joy becomes a place of pain where The People come purely for their paycheck, not have the desire to do more and you’ll notice majority leave on time. As the great Zig Ziglar said, one of the 3 prime things The People need is recognition for doing a good job. It is human nature, if i am not recognised fairly for my good work, i am not going to repeat it again. Reward the behaviour the organisation needs, and you will see the growth of the organisation. Whats worse than lack of recognition? Fault hunting. A simple litmus test of good leadership, are leaders praising and giving due recognition more frequently than highlighting faults and errors?.
Celebrating wins big and tiny lets everyone know and feel the importance of achieving those wins, and automatically work towards even more celebrations. No recognition, no growth.
One of the key indicators of a toxic organisation is reactive management. The clear signs of lack of planning, strategy, structure and misguided information. Managers jumping on minute often non-critical issues, barking off instructions before obtaining proper clarification or information from the right people in the structure, and reacting to one-sided information from unreliable sources. Reactive managers are a product of lack of planning, inadequate strategic thinking, and lack of understanding of the business. Reactive managers create a lot of frustration and anxiety in the organisation, creating disheartened employees and can be clearly seen in the organisation’s lack of innovation.
4. HOT & COLD
The biggest trait of a bad leader is their tendency to jump in and out of responsibilities and roles. Here’s an example to explain this point of discussion. A director sees a discussion on a marketing roll-out, and instead of getting more information and then sharing/discussing his opinion with the marketing manager, shoots off instructions and directions to the team. While he/she may have the authority to do so, what has this action just created?. Well, what is going to happen is with future marketing roll-outs, the manager is going to wait for the directors instructions instead of coming up with their own ideas. And the marketing team will adopt a wait and see approach when the manager gives an instruction or plan, because they assume the director will jump in and change it. Most common incidences of such bad hot & cold habits is the leader responding to questions or minor issues (not directed at the leader or can be responded to by other people) in group chats. While it may appear harmless, if the leader responds to a question or issues in a open chat, it sets precedence. Now, everyone will wait for the leaders response when they have a question of similar magnitude. Managers and other colleagues will withhold their responses because they are unsure if their response is in line with the leaders thoughts, or they now assume that responding to such queries is the leader’s job.
What happens to the organisation? Lack of innovation, lack of creativity, slow responses, robot employees, and in the end lack of growth.
I’ve comes across leaders who have justified their lack of having anything on paper by saying that it is intentional. Intentionally left vague so that everyone and everything is free flowing and flexible (jaw drops). Thats great, if you are running a hippie camp!
When roles and responsibilities are vague, then so are the results. If everybody is responsible, then nobody is responsible. A basic fundamental of organisational management. A clear sign of bad leadership, is lacking the most basic written document; job descriptions. As a colleague once lamented, “if i don’t have a job description, that means if i don’t do this, i’m not wrong.” I sadly, had to agree. Remember that clarity affords focus, focus delivers results.
Clarity on everything is critical. Why is it that ISO’s are such coveted certifications for organisations? Because it says “we have thought of everything, and everything is documented to the highest of standards”. DOCUMENTED being the key word. When processes and systems are not explicitly written down, the organisation is left to human interpretation, which as you know is varied between every individual. Without guidelines, process flows, career paths, and desired results penned down clearly and educated frequently by leaders, you’ll discover a haphazard organisation dotted with frustrated and unmotivated employees. Employees operating at their own standards, not knowing what they need to do, not knowing how they are being measured, not having any targets, and having to tip-toe around the organisation as if walking on a mine field. Simply because they are unaware of what is right or wrong from the leader and organisation’s point of view. It has also been said that bad leaders and their supporters intentionally keep things vague so that they can hoard information, because information is power, and keeping it from you gives them that power over you.
If everybody is responsible, then nobody is responsible
These are some of the key traits of a toxic organisation brought about by bad leadership. I’m merely sharing these observations so that if you find it valuable, you may be able to make better decisions and if you are in a position of leadership, to self-reflect. In positions of leadership, we are often unaware of our actions and the impact that some of our smallest actions have on the organisation. With our busy schedules and having to oversee so many things, sometimes we fail to notice how a single word mentioned can impact those who follow us. Being open and taking the time to reflect and look for that ounce of truth can make us better leaders and in turn achieve more.
What are some of your experiences with toxic organisations and management? Do share them in the comments section so that we may all learn from it.