Leadership Lesson: Toxic cultures and the chemistry of effective leadership

Published in the Phoenix Business Journal on June 8, 2018

Odious. Remember the experiments with sulfur in our high school chemistry labs? We might not recall the experiment, but the odor is an indelible memory. And, when we created a pleasant-smelling chemical ester, we will remember that as well. E.g., pineapple. 

You might have heard that employees do not leave bad companies – they leave bad managers. Here is a contemporary extension of that idea: “Employees do not leave bad organizations – they leave bad cultures.”

Company cultures have a certain, memorable “odor” in the sense of whether we are repelled or attracted by it. 

The leader is the culture

For many years we have believed that we can fashion a company culture. Establish and follow great visions, missions, values. And there is truth in this. But, HR cannot do this unaided. 

If organizational and company leaders do not live the desired culture on a daily basis, then the shape of the culture becomes an amorphous mass that is the sum of undirected behaviors within and among the employees.

Strong leaders consciously shape a culture based upon established and updated values. And these leaders visibly behave accordingly and ask others to do the same.

Turnover the turnover

What percent of your workforce leave the company each year? Per Compdata, Voluntary turnover (employees who were not terminated, but left on their own) increased from 15% to 19% between 2013 and 2017. Bad trend. 

And, Gallup surveys continue to note that over 50 percent of U.S. employees are disengaged, 17 percent are actively making trouble, and 34 percent are engaged. And in a study by the iOpener Institute for People and Performance, engaged and enthusiastic employees:

·  Stay five times longer in their jobs

·  Are twice as productive

·  Take 10 times less sick leave

What’s the difference? Engaged employees are working in an irresistibly attractive culture – created by effective leaders. Intentionally.

Leaders of the culture

What is the chemistry of those leaders who build toxic-free cultures that attract and retain engaged employees? Among other things, these leaders:

1.    Mentor, coach, teach and promote their people.

2.    Lift and excite their employees.

3.    Celebrate wins by acknowledging individuals and teams, regularly.

4.    Encourage their employees to identify problems and help solve them.

5.    Accept accountability for their own failures and don’t blame employees.

6.    Describe clearly what they want their people to produce.

7.    Negotiate milestone dates with what is to be delivered and when, fairly.

8.    See vulnerability as a real strength for themselves and employees.

9.    Manage stress well for themselves and their teams.

10. Delegate effectively with clarity and mutual commitment.

11. Provide regular performance reviews with their employees.

12. Review programs and projects for progress, helping the teams improve.

13. Are approachable by their people.

14.  Do not play favorites.

15.  Value employees for their creativity and problem-solving skills.

Example. Remember Blockbuster Video? They failed because of boardroom infighting over how to do a strategic deal with Netflix. This leadership poison spread into the organization’s culture. Blockbuster busted. Netflix booming. 

The bottom lines

Into the lab. Time to remove a toxic organizational culture that drives good employees away. The positive chemistry of a great leader can create a culture that attracts and retains great people. End of high turnover and start of high productivity. Happy employees. Happy customers.

Click here to read this article on the Phoenix Business Journal site.