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Working in a Toxic Culture!

Have you ever worked in an organisation where anything goes, and people are very insular and almost narcissistic about how they go about their day? Where team members arrive late, focus on what they have to do, as long as the boss isn’t looking and when asked to support another team member, they abruptly tell them to ‘buck’ off and they should know how to do their job.

As a business owner of a retail business, where we had a warehouse full of stock, delivering stock to 19 retail stores, the attitude and standards of joy for the work the employees did was really less than satisfactory. There were complaints from the stores around the truck drivers’ attitudes, when delivering stock. There was constant whingeing, whining and disrespect for managers, and conflict between the forklift drivers and truck drivers. There were also staff that we should never have hired. It was an environment where people didn’t speak up to management for fear of losing their employment, and clearly no-one (including the business owners) were addressing the culture within the organisation.

As one of four business owners, of a successful Discount Variety Retail business, one that had grown from selling goods at the markets to setting up 4 stores in a year, it was clearly evident that some of the most key aspects of the business were neglected – nurturing the people to ensure that the business had a culture where people were happy, driven, focussed on the outcome and getting the results, whilst having opportunities to develop their skills and advance their opportunities to succeed personally.

At this time, it was all about implementation and getting things done. We did get the stock on the shelves and it did turnover, and financially the business was a success, but there seem to never-ending issues with staff, which in the long term would have an impact on the business.

Edger Schein, in his article The Role of The Founder in Creating Organisation Cultures, (Organisational Dynamics, Summer 13 – 19), sees organisational culture as ‘the pattern of basic assumptions which a group has invented, discovered or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration.’ And I believe unwritten ground rules (UGR’s) go a long way to explaining why an organisation has the culture it does, and perhaps NOT the one it wants!

In hindsight, it can now be understood that the team had a lot of unwritten ground rules that were not useful or helpful and the culture of the team was less than adequate.

Some of the UGR’s that was noted by spending time in the Warehouse with the team were:

  • At our team meetings it just is not worth speaking up because nothing ever changes, and it is the boss who has the last say anyway.

  • The only time you’ll hear from the boss is if you’ve done something wrong. It is never up to his standard.

  • Our hours of work are more guidelines than rules, because the boss doesn’t care. Come into work when it suits.

  • That’s just how it’s always been done, so therefore I don’t need to listen to your ideas.

  • It’s not what works, but it’s good enough. We still get paid at the end of the fortnight.

  • It doesn’t matter if I don’t finish picking that stock today. I am not in, but it will happen tomorrow.

My primary role in the business was Human Resources and training the retail staff. I realised that the Warehouse staff was clearly neglected when it came to them feeling valued.

So how do you turn this around?

I spent many weeks working with the staff in the warehouse to understand the procedures and processes. I interviewed each team member, to find out what was working for them, what wasn’t working and how things could be different. We spoke with the manager of the warehouse about who might make a good second in charge – someone who demonstrated the skills that were required to run the warehouse. I went along with the truck drivers to some of the stores to see what it is they did.

I set in place Monday morning meetings and we set benchmarks for the week and targets to be met by the end of the week. I spent many long days and night writing a procedure manual that could be used to induct new employees to the Warehouse. We put in place bonuses for staff who met their targets over the quarter. We had a monthly BBQ lunch. The energy within the Warehouse began to change, it began to feel like a place that people wanted to come to. I involved the Warehouse staff in the training sessions to problem solve any issues that may still be at play within their environment.

I ask these questions - What is the culture within your organisation? Are there expected attitudes and standards? Is there a benchmark of excellence? Do you communicate with your team and understand what is working and what isn’t? Are you a leader that inspires other people to act?

Some positive unwritten ground rules (UGR) in your organisation could be:

  • As a team, you have the approval to improve things without asking and you stand by your results.

  • Everyone has a voice and considered equal when it comes to generating ideas to improve things.

  • You are expected to take responsibility for your role.

  • Take ownership of what you do in your role, and run with it

  • There is always a way and you are expected to believe in yourself and get on with it.

  • Asking for help when you need it is the gold standard.

  • Being challenged when you are okay with it just “being good enough,” is expected.

  • You will be held accountable for not using the systems or the checklists.

  • You are expected to speak up if you have an idea or throw in behind the idea with 100% commitment.

  • Everyone is given feedback openly and often and expected to act on it.

  • Bullying is never okay, and it will cost you your job if you don’t change your ways.

  • You will not be micro-managed, and you are expected to be able to be adult enough to enjoy the autonomy it means you have.

  • Your performance review is taken seriously, and you will be held accountable to the outcomes moving forward.

  • The door is always open for anyone to approach anyone about anything.

  • Our goals and targets are real, and we are held accountable for their achievement.

  • We support one another, and we recognise each other for their achievements and successes

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