Toxic Culture Fixes

Fix Toxic Culture Before It Becomes Permanent

By: Ian Richardson, Managing Partner, Richardson & Richardson Consulting

Toxic Culture Thrives When Expectations Are Unstated.

My father died in September of 2021.

It was somewhat sudden.  There was a crisis event leading to the decision to let his life end in the middle of the night in the Emergency Room at the local hospital. His health had been declining for years; a spinal infection was discovered in 2012. My father wasn’t a big “explosive anger” type of man. A giant of a man, and a giant in his field (he was a partner in a top of the state primary care medical practice), he used his words instead of his fists to make a point. His words impacted me for the rest of my life.

Statements are Not Suggestions

A favorite phrase of his was that “violence was the last resort of the incompetent”. That line was used to instill the expectation in myself and my brother that violence as a solution would not be tolerated in the household, but it wasn’t necessarily billed as such.

Another favorite phrase, which still resonates today, is that of disappointment.

When you failed to meet an expectation with my father, he would tell you so. “You’ve disappointment me” would be the response to an incorrect action, and that would be the end of the conversation. There would not be any further guidance on what should have been done instead of the action that had been taken, just that disappointment had occurred and to not do it again.

I loved my father, and I miss him greatly with him being gone. He provided for our family, and I use lessons from him daily in my existence without even realizing that he spent significant time teaching me them. I say these two items as examples of the title of this blog – unstated or unclear expectations were my father’s bread and butter.  In the beginning of my career, I needed to unlearn old communication styles that were deeply imbedded in my person.  This wasn’t easy, but the results in my personal and professional life were worth the work.

Toxic Culture Thrives When Expectations Are Not Clear

I’ve found that over the years, most conflicts, misunderstandings, business failures, and personal struggles have been firmly rooted in undeclared expectations and a lack of understanding by all parties. I had an interesting post show up on my social media feed the other day. A hiring manager had posed the question in the I.T. space around a resume they received. A candidate for a high-level job had submitted a Microsoft Word document resume to the manager. The manager asked their feed, and the internet at large, what they thought about that candidate, and that they would have expected to receive a PDF type format, instead of the Word document.

Being in cyber security, I can understand the perspective. Microsoft Word documents are famous for being a mechanism for delivering a malicious attack, and this was a legitimate concern.

I responded to the manager, whom I do not know nor have spoke with since, that if they wanted a certain format, they should have stated it clearly. I’ll quote my response here:

“If you prefer a file type, specify it. Unstated expectations create toxic culture. Replace file type with job duties to be performed, or procedure on how to do things at your business, or institutional knowledge on the way you handle situations, or unwritten policies. Clear, transparent, effective communication solves so many business woes that are preventable. Assumptions are the root of failure and frustration.”

Assumptions Make An…

The manager has legitimate concerns:

  • Does the candidate recognize the risks in sending a word document?
  • Are they practicing good cyber hygiene, and will they be a good advocate in the organization?
  • Are they careless?

All of these concerns are based in part on an assumption around the candidate that was triggered by the hiring manager failing to provide the expectations in their posting around how they wanted resumes to be delivered. This example is straightforward, as are most that can be seen from an outside point of view or looked “back upon” after the fact.

Clearly stating what is expected of an individual, team, partner, client, manager, or leader is key to properly getting everyone on the same page. Likewise, when an expectation is missed or not met and making sure that all parties understand how the expectation was missed, and what would have been the way to meet them is needed to create a culture of improvement and a healthy relationship moving forward.

Awkward Conversations Are a Toxic Culture Fix

These conversations can get awkward and uncomfortable – Its tough to create the space needed to tell someone that they have failed you or your organization. You can reduce the number of times you need to have these conversations by setting up everyone for success.

Simple Steps To Fix Toxic Culture

  1. Start creating clear, simple guidelines on what you want.

2. Make sure those guidelines are accessible and shared with all parties that are going to interact with your organization.

3. Have the awkward conversation if those guidelines are not met.

4. Provide clear feedback on how to meet them next time.

5. Document the expectation and update any appropriate standard operating procedures to reflect it.

Use Empathy and Patience to Fix Toxic Culture

Remember that change doesn’t happen overnight.  Changing communication styles, systems and processes take time.  If you aren’t known for being a calm and level-headed leader, your changes may be met with skepticism, anger or confusion.  You will need to be consistent in your approach, and hold all team members accountable to the approach.  You can help your team by leading by examples, and you can protect yourself and your team from failing to meet expectations.

Ask people to state them to you, and if you’re still unclear, ask them to clarify themselves.

If everyone is on the same page, you can still have a failure to meet expectations – things happen after all. But it sure does become easier to dodge those avoidable mistakes.

Richardson & Richardson Helps Facilitate Fixing Toxic Culture

If your organization is struggling to manage or set expectations, or you’re finding accountability a challenge, Richardson & Richardson can help. Check out our case studies for stories of organizations that we’ve assisted with similar issues and download our white papers for deep dives on tools you can use in your organization. If you’re wondering where to start, book a complimentary session with one of the Richardsons today to come up with a plan on how to move forward.

Always Forward,

Ian Richardson

Managing Partner, Richardson & Richardson Consulting

Looking for more ideas?  Listen to the WIN podcast 

Looking for more resources on toxic culture fixes?  We found these articles interesting, you may as well:

Harvard Business Review, Annie McKee, 2019 

Sloan Management Review, Donald Sull, Charles Sull, William Cipolli, and Caio Brighenti, March 2022

Psychology Today, Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., June 2021

Share this Post