Multiple brands have suffered reputational damage following news of abusive work environments. Fox News, NBC, Unicef, The Weinstein Company. Even NPR is on the list, following accusations against Garrison Keillor and head staff in their main office. Welcome to the #MeToo movement.
The strategic question is not, in my mind, “Why did abuse occur?” Rather, it’s “How did abusive behavior happen in organizations that had everything in place we thought should prevent such abuse?”
- Value statements
- Policies from the human resources department
- Compliance training for all employees
- Compliance systems for reporting bad behavior
I for one am not surprised the fortress failed. During my tenure at a Global Fortune 500 company, my project leader accosted me verbally at a dinner. The ex-marine insisted on knowing my politics, railed against political correctness, and discussed owning assault-style weapons. He would use them, he claimed, to protect his family’s physical and financial health.
The manager and I had both passed the annual “compliance with values” test. We’d been through the corporate orientation with moving videos from our CEO. I knew my manager’s behavior broke multiple policy rules; yet, I did not report him. Why? His evaluation influenced my pay. His guns instilled just a little fear. Also, because I had repeatedly observed disconnects between what leaders said mattered and behavior that was rewarded and reinforced through leadership communications, why bother? My experience was not unique.
Steve Paskoff, CEO of ELI, Inc. (a former client), argued in a recent Conference Board webinar that the walls of the bastion promising good behavior always crumble in the face of cultures that ignore or excuse bad behaviors and enable abusive leaders. Uber is the classic example.
In other words, just as culture eats strategy for lunch, culture cripples compliance systems meant to advance and reinforce appropriate workplace behavior. Paskoff points to a list of indicators of weak approaches to civil workplace cultures:
- Lack of leadership commitment – leaders who do not walk the talk
- Failure to deal with superstars with bad behavior because they are superstars, like Fox and Bill O’Reilly
- No disincentive to bad behavior
- Vague values versus clearly stated normative rules. What behavior does “integrity” specifically demand after all?
- Multiple choice compliance tests, versus leadership training, conversations, and continued leadership reinforcement of key messages
- Failure to bring to light unacceptable (and exemplary) behaviors, so employees learn from examples
- Resistance to change, hoping the #MeToo movement will pass like other flavor-of-the-day initiatives
Nothing is going to change, according to Paskoff, until you deal with the root cause of caustic workplace environments: leaders who are not open to comments and feedback about the culture and may, in fact, squash or retaliate against complaints. I suspect a small percentage of leaders fall into this category. A much larger group cares about culture but fails to link the civility of workers and leaders with business results.
But (and here is the core insight) civility in the workplace is a significant driver of business results, according to Paskoff. Uncivil behavior not only impedes productivity and hinders recruitment and retention efforts, it can also damage brand reputations and create other business risks. Paskoff reports on operating room nurses and anesthesiologists unwilling to speak up to “big shot” demeaning surgeons, thereby placing patients at risk. Construction sites, nuclear power plants, nursing homes, manufacturing plants – there are many similar places where speaking up is paramount to business success.
A second root cause of toxic workplaces is the vast gulf that between how most companies approach influencing behavior and how norms of behavior are shaped. We design protections against bad behavior for the tip of an iceberg – legal risks. But below the watermark exist rude and non-professional words and deeds, leading to dismissive and unwelcoming behavior and even bullying. (See graphic.) “You need to manage the entire pyramid, not just the tip,” Paskoff advises.
Manage behavior in the same way you address other important business success drivers like financial health and marketplace awareness. Paskoff recommends: Walking the talk, holding people accountable, measurement, communicating regularly not just once/year, and building an environment where everyone feels free to speak up to power when they see something wrong.
Will the #MeToo movement make a difference? Nor for women with leaders that cannot or will not hear them, or do anything once the message is delivered. The only impact of the #MeToo movement in these places will be the exodus of qualified women seeking better workplace cultures. Maybe then we’ll see real change.
What are you doing to improve your organization’s culture?