What Creates a Toxic Work Culture?

Should we be surprised at the news that seven members of the executive management team of Amnesty International have resigned after an independent report highlighted a ‘toxic’ working environment? According to a report in Third Sector News:

In an internal letter seen by Third Sector, the seven members of the executive team, not including the organisation’s secretary general, offered their resignations in the best interests of Amnesty.

This was after the independently commissioned Konterra report said that:

39 per cent of staff reported physical or mental health issues as a result of working for Amnesty and the organisation’s attempts to address these issues were “ad hoc, reactive and piecemeal”.

This news of these resignations comes after similar allegations and controversies have been reported in the national press about poor cultures of executive management, accountability and governance in major high street companies. As reported in The Guardian in November last year:

Current and former employees of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group have come forward to allege a climate of fear, bullying and harassment at the company and dismiss the mogul’s claims that his behaviour was merely “banter”. In interviews carried out by the Guardian since Green rejected claims of abusive behaviour and insisted “there was never any intent to be offensive”, Arcadia workers claimed his conduct amounted to “bullying” and said its offices were subject to “a culture of secrecy”.

But it’s not only in businesses that these allegations are cropping up. Our schools as similarly facing regular challenges in the quality of the forms of management that have been normalised now in our public services. For example, BBC News have reported that

A former head teacher has been banned from teaching after bullying staff and acting dishonestly. Neil Wilkinson-McKie resigned as chief executive of Cornwall’s Roseland Multi Academy Trust and head teacher of The Roseland Academy in 2016. A Teaching Regulation Agency panel found his conduct “fell significantly short of the standards expected”. It said it was particularly concerned by Mr Wilkinson-McKie’s bullying and unfair treatment of his colleagues.

These are simply three disparate examples of poor management practice that have come to my attention, and it would take a longer-term study and investigation to see if this is part of a pattern of behaviour or if they are exceptions?

What worries me, however, is the extent to which the culture of executive management throws-up figures and cultures in which these kind of situations arise? The obsession in organisations with so-called ‘strong-leadership’, in which managers are almost imbued with god-like powers, is the problem.

Over the last forty years we’ve had workplace reforms in our public services and third sector organisations that have concentrated the power of management cultures. These reforms have largely been about bringing in so-called private sector expertise to our schools, hospitals and universities.

It is no surprise then, that autocratic management cultures take-hold when an organaisation is restructured to run along American corporate lines. This means the dismantling of the checks and balances that exist in organisations. It means weakening the voice of trade unions to independently represent employees. And it means handing power, often uncritically, to people who are susceptible to the allure of power and control over others.

In the public services reforms of the Blair/Brown years, TINA (there is no alternative) was often rolled out as a way of blocking discussions of alternative ideas and debate from coming forward. So the question remains un explored and un answered.

Is there an alternative to the corporate and executive management model? Of course there always is, we just have to be open to considering it.

My suggestion is that we need to reframe the way that managers and business leaders are taught and identified. We need to introduce more friction to the management process so that companies and organisations have to engage with employees and stakeholders in a more openly deliberative and consultative way.

Many organisations run listening sessions when controversies arise internally, but few have the long-term processes in place that allow these conversations to be meaningful and embedded.

In my experience, if an organisations ever says ‘you said, and we listened’, then that organisation is by default dysfunctional.

What is interesting, however, and is worth considering in more detail as time moves on, is how technology is changing our capability to share our views and concerns. Rather than looking at a business or an organisation as a systemic relationship between management and its workforce, more enlightened organisations are recognising the need to foster a living sense of community and social engagement with and between leaders, employees, clients, customers and other stakeholders.

Accountability is more than simply being able to answer questions against the backdrop of a PowerPoint presentation at an occasional meeting of hand-picked trustees. It’s about being able to freely express how we feel about the culture and climate that we experience on a daily basis.

So this news tells me that it’s time we started to tackle the extremes of these increasingly dysfunctional executive management culture, and put back more collegiate, deliberative and socially sensitive models of engagement. It might take a little longer to come to a decision, but in the long-term less harm and damage to our wellbeing and our reputations will be done.

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