Reinventing teams and their leaders for the future (Part 2): Toxic work environments


CFOs often need to oversee the skilling up of their teams. But junior employees aren't the only staff who need to grow and learn - the demand for development exists all the way to the very top, with leaders needing to embrace learning opportunities as much as anyone else on their teams.

One of the biggest tell-tale signs of toxic work culture is reflected in a company’s high turnover. While everyone is entitled to seek out better opportunities, it is also a commonly accepted truism that employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. The care, nurturing and support from leaders can easily be identified as one of the most strategic aspects of an ever-shifting work environment. Specific and measurable qualities of a good leader should be identified, clearly defined and expectations should be reasonably managed because leadership is all about people.

Some of the tell-tale signs of a toxic work environment include:

1.       Low Morale, this is not just related to Monday blues and occasional blues but more likely a permanent dark cloud hanging over the office. It’s easy to misdiagnose this phenomenon as happening on a personal level. Some companies are stressing the importance of employees taking up healing practices like yoga and meditation to enhance personal wellbeing, in the hope that those benefits will filter into the workplace. But no amount of yoga or meditation will solve the problems that result out of a toxic work environment.

2.       Fear of talking to the boss, there is a difference between respect and downright fear of talking, whether it’s speaking up at a meeting or avoiding walking down the corridor out of fear of bumping into the boss. “The boss sets the tone for the workplace culture and their management and interaction style can either lead to a toxic work culture or one where employees are happy”, says the 6Q Blog.

3.       Policies before people, policies are put in place to safeguard people and employers. But sometimes those same policies can be abused by managers who have the power to weaponize it at will. At the 2019 Finance Indaba held in Sandton, a panel discussion on the deterioration of ethics in the profession encouraged every accountant to report unethical behaviour, from junior staff members to company executives. But some audience members said they were reluctant blow the whistle because they feared being victimised. Some pointed out that reporting unethical behaviour can even end in them losing jobs because they are likely be pushed into resigning because leadership has the power to manipulate interpretation of how the policies can be used to ‘get rid of them without having to fire them.” Constructive dismissal is often carried out by the systematic abuse of company policies by its leadership to carry out personal vendettas. Company executives must be mindful and interrogate their manager’s uses of these policies against the workforce. This can lead to a stressful and anxious atmosphere and employees will be afraid to take risks.

Lumminos MD and professional coaching consultant and coach Julia Kerr Henkel said companies with toxic environments are also characterised by a chronic lack of courage. “It’s not just about staff mustering the courage to speak out, it’s about leaders having the courage to have tough conversations and to do the right thing over what is fun, fast or easy. Leaders of today need to develop the skillset of courage to lean into the discomfort of hard, awkward conversations. As human beings it’s natural to shy away from this, but this goes to the heart of courage, wrestling with the uncertainty and risk and still taking action,” says Julia. After years of teaching corporate leadership to harness the power of vulnerability – the emotion we all experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure – by building courage and stripping away of workplace amour to get to the heart of difficult situations she says, “My own management approach is about connection and challenge. Connecting on a personal level with people and also encouraging others to be open, honest and to challenge me, our decisions and those ways of working.”
4.       Cliques that have unfair career advantages: It is natural for people to gravitate towards people they have more in common with. But cliques and groups that look like they are being favoured by management and appear to be presented with more opportunities to grow their careers than others, will alienate other staff members.

Pfizer SA CFO Mhanqwa Khumalo, said the group has zero tolerance for corrosive behaviour. “It goes against our company values which is the courage to speak, excellence, equity and joy, so I won’t hesitate to remove a manager if he or she is continuously causing strife among staff and an overall unhappy environment.”

5) Lack of communication, from directors and how it filters down to staff. If staff are not understanding directives clearly enough it’s a sign of poor communication and will ultimately affect the product. Mhanqwa maintains a good leader must be well informed and can adapt themselves accordingly to guide staff when challenges arise. “If a staff member comes to me for guidance or an answer to a problem, I ask questions rather than just step in as a manager and make decisions. By asking questions, I can help guide the staff member to a positive outcome rather than just taking over. This approach empowers them because they navigated themselves out of a challenge with guidance,” says Mhanqwa.

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