News Analysis

People leave toxic cultures, not jobs

by Stephen Conmy on Nov 23, 2021


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It is often said that workers leave bad managers, not their jobs. This is true. It is also true that people leave toxic cultures, not their jobs. It is the board’s role to oversee culture, one that will deliver good sustainable performance. So, how is the culture of your organisation? Have you examined it recently?

As people, firms and their boards sought stability after an uncertain period, many predicted the Covid crisis would generate more job retention and a stricter labour market.

However, it seems that employees are more willing than ever to quit or change jobs. What has been dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’ is, in fact, a significant calibration of the labour market.

“It’s micromanagers who always intervene to do a task the way they would do it, and managers who take credit for everything that goes right – and blame others for all that goes wrong.”

Michael O’Malley

People feel more confident about quitting

Most of those quitting their jobs are in the low to medium wage sectors, and for them, the pandemic was a time to reassess everything but particularly pay, conditions and culture. People, it appears, are sick and tired of feeling they are being taken advantage of, and this has resulted in a labour market that is showing signs it does value workers. Wages for low-income workers are rising at their fastest rate since the Great Recession. The Great Resignation is, literally, great for lower-paid workers.

Many explanations for the Great Resignation focus on the shifting attitudes of workers. The pandemic was a wake-up call during a very stressful period. In most cases, people were re-evaluating their lives, feeling that their work had caused stress and burnout. Others decided they loved working from home and wanted to continue working from home.

Many others, particularly women, got to reconnect with their children and decided that returning to work wasn’t worth it, particularly during the early growth years. The Guardian puts it more bleakly when it says the heart of the ‘great resignation’ is mothers forced to leave their jobs. During the pandemic, women exited the labour force at twice the rate of men; their participation in the paid labour force is now the lowest in more than 30 years.

Whatever the reasons for the great resignation, which economists will study for years, the fact remains – if an organisation has a sour and toxic culture, people will leave and will feel more confident about quitting.

What is a toxic culture?

No doubt, people can have a variety of negative experiences at work. But what exactly do we mean when we say toxic workplace culture? Workhuman explains it like this: A culture is considered toxic when trust, psychological safety, and employee morale degrade to psychologically unhealthy levels. In such a situation, employees suffer from high levels of stress. And just like a disease, it becomes contagious if not treated right away.

What kinds of managers create or perpetuate a toxic workplace? “It’s bullying, abusive managers – the shouter, the thrower,” says Michael O’Malley, managing director at consulting firm Pearl Meyer and a lecturer in psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. “It’s micromanagers who always intervene to do a task the way they would do it, and managers who take credit for everything that goes right – and blame others for all that goes wrong.”

Can boards spot if they have a bad culture?

A committed and involved leadership team is needed for a conducive work environment that brings motivation and success. Below is a set of guides and tools that can help you and your board examine, measure and correct your organisation’s culture.

Corporate Culture and the Role of Boards (FRC)

This is the Financial Reporting Council’s report on how boards address culture, the board’s role in shaping, monitoring and overseeing culture and how boards and executive management can steer corporate behaviour to create a culture that will deliver good sustainable performance.

Cultural Web

The Cultural Web, developed by Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes in 1992, provides a detailed approach to changing your organisation’s culture. Using this tool, you can expose cultural assumptions and practices and align organisational elements with one another and your strategy.

Human Synergistics free culture toolkit

This culture assessment toolkit includes a variety of resources to help you on your journey to change the culture constructively.

Download Ebook “A board member’s guide to company culture”
Bad Management
Company Culture

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