When New Leaders Encounter Toxic Cultures

Photo by Rey Spadoni

I have spent a great deal of time working within challenging and toxic organizational cultures, whether as CEO, executive, or consultant, and can say with great confidence that they can prove highly vexing or even fatal for a new leader if he or she does not pursue a deliberate course to tackle that culture head on. More than a few good leaders have walking into a new position with optimism and hope only to experience the metaphorical equivalence of a log confronting an industrial wood chipper. It’s not pretty.

The telltale sign of a toxic work culture when the new sheriff rides into town is for the townspeople to “wait it out” and to “carry on” according to the previously established rules of engagement. If decisions were made in the shadows before, some leaders and staff will want very much for that to continue. In the shadows is where they often find their own power and quash emerging threats.

Furthermore, some organizations have defeated a new leader in the past, causing that person to fail outright and depart in shame. This emboldens such brash tactics and rewards bad behaviors. Toxic cultures typically take years or even decades to form and so they frequently don’t go quietly into the night. They are tough, resilient, and prepared to fight.

So, what should the new leader do? A few things:

  1. Demonstrate toughness. It will be important for the new leader to show that they will not be easily deterred. This can be done through simple outward signs of resilience, brushing off public challenges, and showing that they are “bigger” than whatever is trying to bring them down. I have seen instances where new leaders seem shocked, dismayed, and wounded by the toxicity and this only serves to further embolden bad apples.
  2. Call it out. When there are egregiously unproductive and even destructive actions taking place within a culture, it can be very important for the new leader to shine a bright light upon them. I don’t suggest this lightly and the leader will need to consider risk mitigation, including the possibility of legal challenge, but left undeterred, these destructive behaviors can become the undoing of that new leader. Therefore, I do not think that it is unreasonable to fight fire with fire. If there is someone who is clearly undermining the new leader, there can be great power and symbolic benefit in exposing and eliminating the threat. The shadow lurkers will take notice.
  3. Gain a power base through relationships. There will be many in the organization, particularly those bothered by the ongoing toxicity, who will be cheering for the new leader to make improvements. But they will be cheering quietly (or probably, silently) because negative cultures don’t like whistle blowers and do gooders. It will be important for the new leader to seek out allies and to give voice to those who desire a more positive and healthy organizational culture. Additionally, the leader may want to try to convert those who are engaging in less than ideal organizational tendencies as many are really only operating at the periphery of the real problem. Typically, it’s a small, core number of individuals who are driving the toxicity, frequently manipulating other employees toward dangerous behaviors, such as criticizing within public forums or visibly supporting staff unrest. Converts can become powerful allies.
  4. Engage the governance. For CEOs who are in this type of situation, it will be important to speak clearly and very directly to members of the board (or leaders in the corporate office, depending on the governance structure) about such problems and to gain their support early on. Those who are higher up in the chain of command want their new hire to be a good hire and so they will be inclined to help, but only if they understand what is happening. All too often, a crisis in confidence reaches that higher level when the CEO is weak and visibly damaged. Then, it’s often too late.
  5. Look in the mirror. The leader who is encountering these types of organizational challenges should conduct an honest self assessment to determine whether he or she is actually fueling the fire, ignoring warning signs, or turning a deaf ear to those who seem negative but who are actually trying to help. A strong dose of humility and self awareness can become vital ingredients for the leader who finds him or herself wearing these shoes.

I have worked with many boards, executives, and CEOs who are contending with toxic work cultures. If that’s you, I’d be happy to explore the ways I may be able to help.

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