People & Human Resources

What’s the cure for a toxic work culture?

Greg Muller /

Last month the head of the banking royal commission, Kenneth Hayne, released a report outlining the “prevalence and persistence of dishonesty and greed” within Australia’s financial institutions and called for the “consideration of the issues of culture, regulation and structure”.

We hear so much about workplace culture these days, which is a good thing. People are increasingly less accepting of toxic work environments and we look to organisations that have built seemingly enviable cultures and try to replicate them.

The challenge, of course, is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for creating an ideal work environment, or for curing a culture gone sour.

Getting to the root of the problem

There are many dimensions or ‘levers’ to culture and these will vary across different organisations. In financial services, the GFC might have happened 10 years ago, but many cultural drivers have persisted, such as market conditions, attitudes towards customers and KPIs, the spread of the workforce and the level of risk and security.

Transforming culture

While each organisation has different needs and focus areas, there are some foundational must-dos, based on collaboration, that typically set the path toward sustainable and positive work cultures.

Become customer- or stakeholder-centric

Today’s customers and stakeholders are more aware and connected than ever, with access to information and the ability to influence the future of a company by voting with clicks and wallets. Organisations that have supported an inward culture of non-disclosure such as financial services  are now failing.

Organisations of the future must be dynamic, transparent and genuine.

Build empathy between your staff and customers by identifying who in your organisation is most likely to understand, communicate, engage and anticipate the expectations and drives of choice of certain customers.

Change and develop leaders’ mindsets

Businesses with a toxic culture need leaders that are willing to rethink what they do in their business, why they exist and who are they serving — and ‘sell’ this message across the organisation. Less hierarchical organisations are the way of future because of the way they adapt and respond better to complex and ambiguous environments, today and tomorrow.

Instead of simply talking about culture and expecting employees to fall in line, leaders need to rethink their own behaviour and work toward developing ‘networked’ organisations that are connected by technology but also a way of working that is driven by a renewed purpose.

Generate internal excitement

While leaders set the agenda, individual engagement with culture is crucial to ensure buy-in with a common purpose and set of values.

By understanding how people think and make decisions across every level of a company, we can work with individuals and teams to drive an internal ‘uprising’.

Foster diversity of thought

Diversity has a huge role to play in culture, values and reputation. As we have seen with financial organisations, ‘group think’ can be highly detrimental.

Organisations need a balance of thinkers who each challenge the other’s position, particularly at the leadership level. We need diversity initiatives that focus on how people think, in addition to other initiatives around gender, race, disability or ethnicity.

True diversity is about the diversity of thought, which is impacted by these other factors, but are also completely individual. If we enable people to drive diversity within themselves and build teams that think in diverse ways, we are well on the way to building more balanced work cultures.

NOW READ: How toxic workplaces are feeding the imposter phenomenon

NOW READ: Seven essential steps to create a thriving, respectful workplace culture

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Greg Muller

Greg Muller is the founder and chief executive of Gooroo.

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