Category Archives for Workplace culture

Toxic workplaces

How do you recognise a toxic workplace?

If you’re in one, you’ll probably know. But just to put some definition on it, you will see some or all of the following

· Poor management

· Lack of autonomy – micro managers, lots of rules and regulations

· Blame culture – people afraid to make a mistake or own up to it, because of repercussions

· Bullying and harassment

· Bad working practices

· Work overload

· No recognition of effort

· Lack of trust

What effects does it have?

No-one enjoys coming to work. Morale and motivation are low, so productivity is low. More people are off sick because of work related stress. Or they come in to work when they are sick (presenteeism) so they’re not performing well, and maybe passing their germs onto the rest of you. Staff turnover is high, increasing costs of recruitment, leaving you to manage vacancies until you hire replacements. Which also increases stress on those remaining, and reduces your productivity again.

What’s your place in it


Good news if you’re the boss. You can do something about it, because a workplace culture usually comes from the top. General Eisenhower said ‘Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.’ This is just as relevant (maybe even more so) in the corporate, business or public services worlds than in the military. Your role is to create the conditions for your team to want to do the work. Not be doing it begrudgingly or half hearted, afraid of the repercussions if they don’t, but to do it because they want to.


As an employee in a toxic workplace you probably just get the fallout of the toxicity like everyone else. You’re having to work under the conditions outlined above, overworked, deal with poor management, getting little or no recognition or appreciation for your effort. You hate the job – or you might like the work, but hate the conditions you’re having to work in. A friend of mine works in a primary school with children who have special needs. She loves helping the children, but hates the management structure of the school and how she is treated by them.


In toxic workplaces there are often cases of bullying, harassment, someone being picked on or getting an unfair workload, or getting all the worst jobs. Everyone else lets this go on, because they don’t want to be the next in line to be picked on. The type of manager who operates through autocratic behaviour creates fear by intimidating her employees, bullying anyone who dares to questions her actions.

How can you respond?

You’ve got three basic choices

· Confront the problematic behaviour

· Ignore it and hope to stay under the radar

· Quit

These all have pros and cons, and likely outcomes. If you’re in a small organisation, how you take this forward will differ from a large, bureaucratic organisation that has policies, procedures, an HR department, but you still have essentially the three main options

If you want to confront a bully or poor manager, your strategy will depend on many factors, like your work relationship, how bad it is, what support you have, how strong you feel and what outcomes you’re willing to accept.

Likewise, if you’re planning to ignore it and stay under the radar, you need to consider all these factors, and the effect it will have on your stress levels, your emotional response and the effects on your home and personal life.

And of course quitting will depend on your financial and personal circumstances as well as your potential for finding something else

Guide for leaders and managers

If you are a leader or manager, your role is to create the conditions for your team to want to do the work of the organisation. If you have poor working relationships with your team, there are steps you can take to improve matters, like being clearer on expectations, avoid overloading with work, recognise achievements and create an atmosphere of trust.

Find out more

For more detail on these strategies, download my ebook, ‘A guide to toxic workplaces’.

Can you tell me if I’m onto something?

Does your organisation want to...

  • Reduce sickness absence?
  • Reduce staff turnover?
  • Improve employee engagement?
  • Improve employee wellbeing?
  • Improve staff performance?
  • Improve productivity?
  • Increase profits?

I am about to launch an innovative consultation service so that organisations can identify what works well, and what they can do to improve the factors listed above. However, first I'd like to validate the concept, test the market and refine the service I intend to offer.

This is where you come in. I’m offering a limited number of complimentary consultations to charities, social enterprises, schools, SMEs and other organisations, so that I can test the market. If you have one or more of these problems, begin by filling in the survey below, and I'll be in touch.

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Culture – the by product of consistent behaviour

A friend of mine took up running during her lunch break. What’s strange about that you may ask? Getting some exercise is good for you as a general thing, and during the lunch break, could be a good way to give yourself more energy and vitality during the afternoon. Well, she’s not really the running type, and the reason she took it up? She hates her colleagues so much, she’d prefer running to get away from the office so she could spend less time with them.

My favourite definition of culture is that it is the by product of consistent behaviour.[1] So what is going on in that workplace, consistently, to make someone prefer to take up an exercise they wouldn’t ordinarily be motivated to do? And what is my friend’s behaviour, going out alone at lunchtime instead of socialising with colleagues, what is her behaviour saying to her peers and bosses? It’s likely she would have developed a better understanding of her colleagues, and they of her, if she’d invited them along; shared activities are one way to develop good workplace relationships.[2]

I’ve worked in offices where staff were managed through control and fear. I remember one manager who told me, with some pride in her voice, that everyone who she had assessed as underperforming at their annual appraisal had gone on to leave the organisation. It apparently didn’t occur to her to wonder why people who had previously been good at their jobs were now underperforming. Or consider whether she had some responsibility for that.

I worked for a manager who kept all the information to himself, only sharing what he thought was necessary, and expected tasks to be completed how he wanted them done. Unsurprisingly, staff waited for approval before doing anything, and rarely showed initiative.

Sports Direct have come in for a lot of flak over their employment practices, but I’d like to pick out just one. Staff at their warehouse in Derbyshire are reported to be expected to submit to searches before and after leaving work to make sure they aren’t stealing the stock.[3] Trust comes up regularly as a key to good leadership, but why would an employee trust a leader who clearly doesn’t trust them? And if you’re judged untrustworthy, what are the chances you’ll try to live up to that expectation? Oh, and you’re not paid for the time you spent waiting to be searched. How likely is that employee to put themselves out for an employer who treats them with such disregard?

There is some good news though, it is possible to make changes for the better. A care home in Essex was one of the subjects of the scandal exposed by a Panorama programme, a couple of years ago, where elderly residents were routinely treated with abuse. Some staff were dismissed and prosecuted, but the new owners faced a major task to stamp out such behaviour. By adopting behaviours that model what good care is: the acronym KCR, meaning kindness, comfort and respect, was introduced in July 2014, the culture at the home has been transformed. “We said if we’re going to get everybody working in the same way and we’re going to really drive through … how we do things around here, unite everybody, we need to call it something,” “And it’s not just about how we treat the residents, it’s about how we treat each other as well.”[4]

But change is tricky. How do we change our consistent behaviour? Habits are hard to change. Research shows that it takes about two months to embed a new behaviour, and it’s best to only change one thing at a time. So what’s our motivation for making the effort?

There’s a growing awareness of the importance of workplace culture. There’s tons of research that shows people are more productive when they’re happy. When they’re not stressed. When they eat healthy food and get some exercise. When they see the bigger purpose of their work. When they have some mastery and autonomy over what they do. Not only are they more productive, but they are off sick less often, they are more likely to stay in their job.

So sure, change is tricky, but if you want your business to thrive, or even to survive, you will need to embrace it.

I’ll leave you with one final question – how is your behaviour impacting on your workplace, and is that creating the kind of culture you want?

Leave me a comment below, what changes do you think you could make?

[1] Fried, Jason and Hansson, David Heinemeier. 2010. Rework. Random House Group Limited, Chatham

[2] Friedman, Ron PhD, 2014. The Best Place to Work. The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. Perigree, Penguin Group, New York



Doctor examining a patient's x-ray anyone can make a mistake

Anyone can make a mistake

I was reading something recently about workplaces and working relationships, and was intrigued by this finding.[1] Apparently, some research was done about how many mistakes were made in a hospital. The research compared places where the people were comfortable, got along in the team, and all worked well together, with other places where there were not good working relationships.

The researchers were surprised to find that more mistakes were made in the hospitals where everyone got on well, not the ones with poor working relationships. This wasn’t what they expected to see.

Being good researchers, they investigated further to see why this might be.

What's going on?

I don’t know if you can see the answer coming, but the results weren’t so counterintuitive after all. It’s not that the good workplaces made more mistakes. It’s that they owned up to them. And, more importantly, learned from them.

Those places where people didn’t work well together, no-one wanted to own up to the mistakes. That’s quite frightening in a hospital don’t you think? It means possibly no-one is acting to put them right. If the mistakes are critical, or fatal – well, instead of getting help, the busy, stressed, incompetent, whatever adjective applies, worker, was probably trying to put it right by themselves. Or not, if they were indeed incompetent. Now, I’m not suggesting all healthcare workers who make mistakes like this are incompetent, most won’t be, but there’s bound to be some. But whatever the reason for the mistake, not owning up to it is costing people’s health and even lives. The lack of shared learning – how do we ensure this doesn’t happen again, is compounding the problem.

Matthew Syed in his 2015 book, Black Box Thinking, puts this problem under the spotlight, together with our attitude to failure.  You can find out more about this book in my review, watch it here.

We all know the NHS is under extreme pressure, and allowing these kinds of workplace cultures to persist in such a crucial sector is madness in my opinion.

Are we ready to learn the lessons?

But there are lessons for us whatever our sector. Do we want people who take responsibility, own up to mistakes, work to rectify and learn for the future? Or are we happy to continue with teams who don’t get along, are afraid to step up and take responsibility, develop and grow?

How about your own workplace? Can people be honest and open about errors, or do they cover them up because of an environment of fear? What impact does that have on your organisation's effectiveness?  Start the discussion by leaving a comment below.

[1] Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read this to cite the source. A check of my recent reading material hasn’t enabled me to find it – but if I do, I’ll come back and cite.

Edit: I still haven't come across where I originally read this, but just recently came across an account of it in Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.  The research is by Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School. You can watch my review of Black Box Thinking here


Amy Edmondson, 'Learning from Mistakes is Easier Said than Done: Group and Organisation Influences on the Detections and Correction of Human Error', Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 32, no 1 (1996), 5-28​​​

Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking (2015) John Murray, London

Workplace culture – what is it and why is it so important?

Is it important? You may think it isn’t, but I want to show you why I think it is important. Before that though, some wider questions need to be addressed. What do we mean by workplace culture? How do we know if we like it, or if we want to change it? How do we go about making changes?

Let’s start with some definitions

At its simplest, culture is often described as ‘the way we do things around here’. Not sure which business or management book I got this from, but I’ve come across it a few times. But then, that’s not really enough to help us answer those other questions – how do we know we’re happy with the current culture, or how do we change it?

This I believe is a more useful definition

Culture is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviours shared by a group of people. Culture is the behaviour that results when a group arrives at a set of - generally unspoken and unwritten - rules for working together. [1]

This is then influenced by the organization’s founder, executives, and other managerial staff because of their role in decision making and strategic direction. [2]

Or more simply, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, in their book Rework, describe it as the by product of consistent behaviour. The behaviour you want your team to demonstrate, that’s the behaviour you should adopt. [3]

There’s lots of evidence that a strong workplace culture is good for organisations, good for the bottom line, and good for the people who work there. If you need convincing of that, I’ll come back to it another time. But if you want to improve your workplace culture, how do you go about it?

How do I know if it's good or bad?

Any assessment of culture is subjective of course. But there are things an organisation can do to assess its culture.

The first step would be to do an audit of current culture. Whilst culture can be a reflection of the founder or senior management team, as I’ve already observed, it’s a complex issue. Much of it is – as stated above – unspoken and unwritten, and shows up in daily work practices. An audit can bring some of these practices into the daylight. An audit done well, surveying the organisation at all levels, will also highlight differences in what management believe the culture to be, opposed to what is actually going on in teams, what your culture is in reality, and whether there’s any correlation between them.

For example, where the pursuit of organisational goals is the common aim, (and I’d argue that this is the aim for all organisations) individual targets and performance are not the drivers. This is a key point, often overlooked. Many organisations then set sales people against each other, rewarding those who make the most sales, encouraging a competitive atmosphere, which of course is counter productive when you want everyone to work together.

Once you’ve identified your current culture, as an organisation you can begin to think about what you’d like to change.

What does good look like?

This again will depend upon the organisation and its aims. However, poor quality employment is associated with low wellbeing. Job design, involvement in decision making, managerial competence, bullying and harassment, status, all determine quality of work experience. Many employers think gym membership and insurance will contribute to wellbeing. In my view, they are outsourcing the solution, and are probably outsourcing the problem too. They are placing responsibility for wellbeing back with the individual, and take no responsibility for factors mentioned above.[4]

So a good culture then, how do we recognise this? There are clues you can spot. Do you have low rates of staff turnover and sickness absence? Is everyone happy in their work? Do your people look forward to the work week, or dread that Monday morning feeling? How do they speak about your company or organisation? Are you achieving your business aims and objectives?

If it's bad, how do I change it?

Your audit may have identified some gaps between what you would like the culture to be, against what is actually going on. It is important to work out how covert behaviours develop to help to implement change. Unless you identify the behaviour, how and why it developed you can't then work out how to change.

However, this is the really tough one. Defining what culture is might be tricky, assessing it can be complex, but just wait till you decide to change it; we’re on a whole new level of difficulty now. Leaders must be creators and promoters of the preferred culture. Of course, if leaders are the problem with bullying styles of management, they are indeed the creators and promoters of the culture. As with any conflict situation, it behoves us all, leaders included, to ask what are we doing to contribute to or cause the problem?

Barriers to change

Research has shown that organisations which have little or no commitment to equality and diversity, whose cultures encourage dominant groups to hold power, are more likely to have climates where harassment and bullying thrive. I think it is no accident that cases of poor employment practices and exploitation of workers are becoming more prevalent in the current political climate. The current government demonstrates little or no commitment to equality and diversity, and the culture encourages dominant groups – large corporations, media, public school educated elites – to hold power.

The other key barrier to change is that it is hard, really, really hard. And takes years rather than months. There are no quick fixes. If you succeed, it makes the work environment better, it makes work more satisfying for the people who work there, and ultimately makes the world a better place.

If you want a more in depth analysis of these issues, download the ebook, Workplace culture - what is it and why is it important?

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[1] (Susan M Heathfield, 2016)

[2] (Susan M Heathfield, 2016)

[3] (Fried, et al., 2010)

[4] (IoD 2006 p15-16)


Fried, Jason and Hansson, David Heinemeier. 2010. Rework. Chatham : Random House Group Limited, 2010. 9780091929787.

Susan M Heathfield. 2016. Culture: Your Environment for People at Work. About Money. [Online] 2016. [Cited: 2nd June 2016.]

Institute of Directors. 2006. Wellbeing at Work. London : Director Publications Ltd, 2006.