I hear it so many times whenever I’m working with people in a mediation, or I’m advising them on a social media platform when they’ve posted “my workplace is toxic and I need to get out”.
I liken workplace culture to gardening - you’re either growing something fantastic (like this tree) or you’re growing Japanese Knotweed.
If given the chance, the latter will spread rapidly and is incredibly hard to eradicate. Soon toxicity engulfs people in the organisation.
Most employees have three choices - they can either:-
1) Stay and suffer
2) Stay (and suffer) but try to improve the culture
My biggest hope for those who choose number 3 is that they don’t inadvertently jump from frying pan to fire but usually, because of their experiences they will become more diligent in checking out future employers.
Those who choose number 1 will either jump straight to number 3 or they will eventually be in a process - whether that be performance management, absence, grievance, disciplinary or a tribunal - and sometimes all of them!
Once employees (and, let’s face it, HR and managers) have endured the months or years of stress that those formal processes usually entail, they will still end up at number 3.
They will either resign, be dismissed or retire early because they simply can’t stand it anymore.
There is one other way they may end up at number 3 too - and I’m not being unrealistic here because I’ve seen it - in extreme cases they could also decide to end it all by taking their own lives.
As I often say to people (excuse the language) - if your life at home is shit and your life at work is shit, then that means your life is shit.
Life really is too short. As a 53 year old (at the time of writing) I often reflect on mortality and “how long is left” - not because I’m morbid but mainly because losing my sister at 40 and my dad at 70 certainly puts life into perspective for me.
We all know somebody and have our own stories about people who were taken too early.
I promise I will lighten this blog up soon but before I do let’s look back at the “your life is shit” analogy.
As employers, we can support employees but we can’t resolve their problems at home. We can, however, do everything about the issues and challenges they encounter at work.
Many employees spend more of their waking hours at work than they do at home - therefore we have this fantastic opportunity to make their lives far less shit!
This brings me to number 2 in my original list of choices - those employees who decide to stay but want to improve the culture.
These will fall into two categories - those who drive the culture (leaders) and those who are influenced by the culture being steered from the top (employees).
I don’t subscribe at all to the supposition that culture change takes an eternity - I personally see that as a poor leadership excuse (you can see my blog on that very subject here).
There are millions of toxic buds out there that need nipping - but instead, we grow them because we don’t know any other way or simply can’t be bothered.
ACAS and others will always advise you to go down the grievance / disciplinary route - because they don’t know a better way.
For me all formal grievances (and many formal disciplinaries) are like pouring fertiliser on the Japanese Knotweed - it’s why I see them so much as a failure.
Organisations need leaders who can build trust by talking and (most importantly) listening to employees. Hence my four steps to cultural change:-
STEP 1 - Listen properly to gain insights.
STEP 2 - Insights change thinking.
STEP 3 - Thinking changes behaviour.
STEP 4 - Behaviours shape culture.
Nobody should feel shit at work - and no organisation will flourish long term by cultivating Japanese Knotweed.
Grow beautiful trees instead!