9 Things Companies Should Be Doing to Avoid Creating a Toxic Workplace

This article was originally published in MarketWatch on February 4, 2020. Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center of Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Toxic workplaces have become easier for corporate shareholders to recognize. This bodes well for changing practices to create safer, stronger companies and foster better business outcomes. Yet identifying bad practices isn’t enough. Culture management is a hard, technical skill. Company leaders need to paint a positive picture of the future in order for employees to have faith in their organization’s goal.

Many business leaders are oriented towards action and seek a road map for how they can contribute to a thriving organizational culture.  Based on research I have done, and drawing heavily on definitions of personal mental health developed by Dr. Dan Siegel, I’ve begun the work of defining healthy culture in corporations. Here are nine recommended steps executives can take to build such cultures:

1. Develop the organization’s awareness of itself:  Use regular self-assessment tools and schedule organizational sweeps to understand the current state of the corporation.  Companies can promote ethics in their culture by developing certain conditions, using a mix of cultural elements and leveraging moments in the organization’s life cycle to encourage ethics.

2. Create an organization-wide framework for ethical decision making:  This helps top executives and those in outward-facing, frontline roles operate from a common set of practices.  The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, where I am the senior director of leadership ethics, offers a framework for decision making. Companies can customize it to reflect decision-making specific to a certain organization.

3. Connect the silos:  Integrate the organization across divisions, giving people from different parts of the company the opportunity to work together.  Rotate people into roles in different parts of the company.

4. Share the organization’s history:  Intentionally cultivate the organization’s memory of its shared history and desired legacy.  Curate a set of examples that show the organization’s potential and how this can be achieved.

5. Tell stories:  An oral tradition provides an opportunity for narrative integration, allowing executives and managers throughout the company to bring a sense of themselves into their leadership, raising the chances that a personal connection will be made with employees.

6. Foster empathy: Give high-potential employees who will serve in future leadership positions experiences in both realms — roles in traditional, well-established parts of the company and in the more innovative, emergent parts. And give them opportunities to experience what the customers or clients of the organization experience.

7. Create community consciously: Be intentional about creating a community where individuals have a sense of responsibility for having healthy relationships with other people in the organization. Reinforce the individual role each person has in connecting with others, both inside and outside of the organization, and model it.  Employees are less likely to have good relationships with one another if the C-suite does not.

8. Acknowledge uncertainty and change:  We can plan for the future, but cannot know with any certainty what it will be. Executives can acknowledge this tension as a way of helping those in the organization to manage change.

9. Always connect to the mission and vision:  Though we are separate individuals, we derive meaning from our connectedness to entities greater than ourselves.  Whatever the document, set of principles, or beliefs that get used in the organization, make it part of how decisions are reached.

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