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Keep Your Company’s Toxic Culture from Infecting Your Team

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Annie McKee for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Sometimes even well-intended managers act in ways that they’re ashamed of. Take Jan, for example. Jan is known for his slightly off-key and mildly insulting humor — it’s even been noted as one of his strengths. He gets the laughs. But he’s told me that he cringes every time he makes a joke at someone else’s expense. He despises the fact that his behavior directly contradicts his personal values. And yet he continues. Then there’s Marty, who is lauded for her ability to pick the “right” person for a job. Deep in her heart, though, Marty is ashamed of herself. She knows that she’s more often than not chosen the “acceptable” person over the right person. And in her organization that means that, at a certain level, it’s a man and he’s white.

Why on earth would people violate their own values like this?

In my experience, it has less to do with a person’s individual flaws (though I do believe that there are far too few really good leaders in our organizations — and far too many who are subpar or downright awful) and more to do with the culture that these leaders operate in.

Culture is an incredibly powerful driver of human thought and behavior. It tells us what’s sacred and profane, right and wrong, good and bad. It provides guardrails that keep us in line and ensure we think, say, and do the right thing. “Right,” that is, according to the tribe we belong to. And today, our organizations are our tribes. They are so important to us, and so powerful, that far too often the rules of our organizational culture overshadow the values and the norms of the other cultures we belong to — national, community, even family. This isn’t necessarily bad, unless the organization we belong to has a toxic culture.

The Power of a Toxic Culture

If you’re wondering whether your organizational culture is unhealthy, here are some of the signs I’ve seen in the companies I’ve studied.

Pressure to cover. The act of “covering” is hiding or downplaying aspects of yourself or your identity to fit in at work. Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith’s research has shown that covering affects a majority of people in the workplace, and that people attempt to cover everything from being a mother or a person of color to non-macho sensitivity that might be considered un-masculine. Covering has serious and negative effects for the people who feel they can’t bring their full selves to work. More, if there are important values or behaviors that our culture forces us to downplay or abolish altogether — things like respect for other people, a belief in meritocracy and fairness, or compassion — the people who work for us suffer too.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program. She is the author of How to Be Happy at Work and a coauthor of Primal Leadership, Resonant Leadership, and Becoming a Resonant Leader.

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