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June | Culture by Design | Read time: calculating...

Big changes required to fix toxic workplace culture

The state of Australian workplace culture has been in the spotlight recently for all the wrong reasons.

From small business to the highest echelons of corporate and government entities, there seems to be pervading toxicity that needs immediate attention.

When transformation specialist Keogh Consulting are called in to help organisations improve their workplace cultures, they typically promote the idea of evolution rather than revolution.

In other words, they advocate for a gradual shift rather than wholesale change.

But according to Principal and Innovation Lead Margit Mansfield, when things are as toxic as they appear in some Australian workplaces, the only way to initiate meaningful change is to adopt a “rip and replace” methodology.

“In these situations, if you can’t change people’s minds, you have to change the people,” Margit says.

“If the leadership team is not able or willing to accept what everybody else appears to understand clearly, it’s time for a new leadership team.”

That’s a big call when those leaders are often at the pinnacle of the nation’s highest-profile organisations.

Keogh Consulting Executive Chairman Allan Keogh says there are three fundamental elements required to improve workplace culture:

  • A leadership team that is willing and capable of leading the way
  • Intentional and focused design of the desired culture that needs to be in place
  • Ensuring safe, positive and compassionate structures and systems that will reward, acknowledge and reinforce the new cultural environment

Allan says a big problem occurs when leaders become compartmentalised or accustomed to toeing a party line.

“The thing that differentiates good leaders from mediocre ones is their ability for individual thought and a willingness to deviate from the norm,” Allan says.

“It may not always be the most popular or accepted choice, but leadership should not be a popularity contest. After all, healthy conflict leads to better outcomes.”

“More importantly, a leader who displays their own individuality provides a clear indication that they will accept it in others. That is at the heart of good workplace culture.”

Related: How to change organisational culture in 3 easy steps

When it comes to the serious issues regarding the treatment of women, there are big problems, according to Margit.

“It’s easy to follow the party line and there’s often an expectation that everyone within an organisation will do so, from the top down and certainly from the bottom up,” she says.

“That means the propensity for individual thought is not encouraged, and that in turn means cultural transformation is inhibited.

“So we don’t have a leadership team that is realistically willing or capable of driving the change that is required, nor do we have any obvious or articulated intentions to redesign the culture.

“In those cases, two of the three elements for bringing about a cultural shift are missing, meaning there’s no hope of the third element becoming a reality.

“That is when the most effective approach is to wipe the slate clean and start again.”

Of course, both Margit and Allan know that is unlikely to occur.

“Rarely will we have the opportunity to start with a blank canvas,” Allan admits.

“Culture is about realising individual interests, drivers and potential within a larger group, so a more realistic approach is to identify and nurture pockets of brilliance, then use those as the foundations on which to build.”

“That means identifying the high performing individuals and teams – the ones that lead by example and stand up for what is right – and begin the transformation from there.”

“In time, the less successful or desirable areas will fade away as those more desirable pockets envelop the entire organisation.”

However, Margit says when there’s such a vast gap between ingrained expectations and moving with the times, the undesirable behaviours need to do more than just fade away. She favours a sledgehammer approach.

“If you can’t move people out of their positions of power, at the very least they need to step aside and allow others to take charge of the change that needs to occur,” she says.

“Then when the new culture has been implemented and accepted by the majority, every single person in every single workplace, regardless of the organisational or political hierarchies that may be in place, must be held to account, personally and professionally, for their conduct and what they permit to occur under their watch.

“People have to be given the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, but if they can’t show that they have learned, they need to go.

“That is the only way we can feasibly bring about positive and permanent change.”