27 September 2023

Disabling the enablers: How to cure a toxic workplace culture

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Celia Swanson* says it is the responsibility of every individual to step up and lead by example to stop a toxic workplace culture.

Photo: Arek Socha

During my tenure as executive vice president of Walmart, I hired a brilliant strategist to create a marketing strategy for the Sam’s Club division.

Her results were powerful; the campaign was simple yet highly relevant.

We became friendly, and I considered the hire a success until one of the team members approached me.

It turned out the strategist had been incredibly hostile with her colleagues, making them feel marginalised and worthless.

This had gone on for more than a year, and many on the team were considering leaving.

After being unaware of the problem for so long, I took immediate action and fired her.

The crisis didn’t end there.

Though I was able to convince the team’s top talent to stay, it took years to earn back their trust.

This whole situation could have played out very differently.

Looking back, I see how I enabled the strategist by not looking beyond her results.

And I see that the team’s hesitancy to speak up allowed the toxicity to continue unabated.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of every individual — no matter their org-chart status — to step up and lead by example in a toxic workplace culture.

From this experience, I developed several strategies to help me and my team members across the organisation identify how we can work together to prevent toxic cultures from taking hold.

The key to this strategy is for each person to identify the role they play in either supporting or combating the culture.

Identifying the role you play

There are two types of team members: passive enablers and active enablers.

Passive enablers — which is what I was — are typically unaware of what’s happening.

They often mean well but are blinded by “achievement mode” and are focused on driving results.

They get to a point where they simply don’t look further than they should and naively trust that their leaders are operating from their same value system and leadership style.

In my case, I was a passive enabler because I looked no further than the results the team was delivering, maintaining my ignorance of what was happening to produce those results and continuing to enable the behaviour.

Active enablers do see what is happening but fail to take action.

They are crucial to combating toxic behaviour because they are typically in the trenches of the problem and can best describe and document the situation.

But they can be hesitant to speak up about what they are experiencing because they think they lack the status to bring a complaint forward or fear that there will be repercussions.

They assume someone else will take a stand, rationalise that the situation may not be that bad, or delay action to wait for more proof to validate their uncertainty.

Taking action

Passive enablers must have a strategy for looking deeply into how results are achieved and acting with urgency when problems arise.

The best way to do so is by being visible to their teams.

Simple acts of scheduling “walking around” time in the office, dropping by to say hello or having one-on-one meetings gives you practical tactics for demonstrating trust while verifying the actions and results of their team.

This also gives your team sensible touchpoints for voicing concerns without the formality of setting up confidential meetings.

Active enablers need to recognise that choosing not to speak up is, in fact, a choice to support the behaviour.

They must recognise that they have an obligation to encourage healthy and respectful workplaces, and they can start by finding someone they trust who can offer advice on how to handle the situation or has the authority to take action.

In my case, after firing the strategist, I worked with my team to create and implement a formal engagement improvement plan that would open the communication lines from the top down.

The plan included a visibility strategy, regular leadership evaluations, and a reinforcement strategy that empowered the team’s sense of accomplishment.

This provided an opportunity to demonstrate and reward values-based behaviour.

It also instilled a culture of trust and openness for communication and concerns.

Fostering cultural health

When leaders communicate clearly and actively demonstrate what will not be tolerated, employees understand that their concerns will be heard and taken seriously.

I failed to do this because I was blinded by the terrific results the marketing strategist was bringing in, but in the end the damage done to the team’s culture could have been far more expensive.

Research shows that organisations drive better results when employees feel heard.

A study found that a national restaurant chain saved $1.6 million and decreased its turnover rate by 32 per cent when managers had access to senior leaders to share ideas and voice concerns.

Additionally, several financial firms reported stronger financial and operational results when employees had more opportunities to voice their opinions.

Making the decision to speak up against a toxic culture is one of the most difficult decisions employees may face in their careers.

I am grateful to the colleague who finally brought their concerns to me and am glad that I was able to move quickly to limit further damage.

The experience taught me how important it is to empower everyone in an organisation to hold organisations accountable.

* Celia Swanson was the first female executive vice president at the USA’s Walmart Inc.

This article first appeared at hbr.org.

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