3 Ways Senior Leaders Create a Toxic Culture

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3 Ways Senior Leaders Create a Toxic Culture

Whether presiding over the entire company, a function, or a business unit, the people at the top of an organization have a disproportionate level of influence over those they lead. Those further down in the organization look to their leaders for cues on what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and the team’s habits will be emulated. Having your actions play out publicly is a huge responsibility, and unfortunately, too many teams don’t take this responsibility as seriously as they should!

At their best, leadership teams synchronize their organizations into cohesive powerhouses. At their worst, they set an example that some of the worst habits will be tolerated — and perhaps even rewarded.

To analyze further this matter, we’ve collected three habits that we’ve seen have the most negative influence on a company. Check them out:


Scattered Priorities

It’s astounding how badly most leadership teams use their time together. They set meeting agendas haphazardly, frequently only days beforehand (if at all). Their conversations veer off topic, often into minutia. They leave unaddressed the decisions and problems needing resolution. One study, done by the consulting firm RHR International, showed that among high-performing leadership teams, 93% are able to prioritize the most important issues and 96% focus on the right issues. By contrast, in low-performing leadership teams, only 62% prioritize well and 53% are seen as being focused on the right issues. The implications for an organization whose leadership team is poorly focused are serious: Wasted resources, wasted effort, and widespread confusion become the norm.

Effective leadership teams have clearly defined charters. They narrowly focus on the most strategic priorities and don’t detour from them. They stick to well-articulated decision-making processes. And they intentionally transfer their disciplined focus down through the organization.



Unhealthy Rivalries

Competition among leadership teams isn’t unusual. After all, leaders that made the cut had to distinguish themselves among their peers to get the “big jobs.” But a team of excessively individualistic leaders vying for resources, status, influence, and, most often, their boss’s job, can fracture the organization beneath them.

Let’s say a CEO loves to foster competition among his team and that he would intentionally set conflicting goals among team members, believing this would lead to the best ideas prevailing. Would it be a good thing? Would this create a positive environment? Not exactly: there’s a big chance it would lead to vicious backstabbing and information hoarding. So watch out before you decide to challenge your employees when they’re not ready!


Building Good Habits

Unhealthy competition erodes trust. If team members distrust the motivations and unspoken agendas of teammates, they will act with self-protection, even self-interest, to avoid risking personal failure. And when things don’t go as hoped, people point at one another in blame rather than healthy accountability. It is nearly impossible to make and execute critical decisions when team members don’t trust one another — and it’s equally difficult to ask the rest of the organization to carry out those decisions if everyone knows they were made by people who aren’t aligned.

Leadership teams must operate as a unified force. Shared goals must be accompanied by shared accountability. In the RHR study we mentioned earlier, high-performing leadership teams were five times more likely to hold members accountable for shared goals than their low-performing counterparts. Rivalry should be saved for external competition!



Unproductive Conflict

When conflict and information are mishandled among a leadership team, the rest of the organization follows suit. The RHR study showed that 87% of high-performing leadership teams handled conflict effectively and were transparent and open with information, and 82% exchanged constructive feedback with each other. Only 44% of low-performing leadership teams handled conflict effectively and 52% exchanged feedback and were transparent with information. The difference in performance is profound: Among the high-performing teams, employee engagement averaged 87%, while among lower-performing teams it dropped to 45%.

Speaking negatively behind one another’s backs, withholding honest perspectives, or pocket vetoing decisions after they are made should be unacceptable. Leadership teams should have written norms that they won’t engage in these behaviors, and they should share those norms with the rest of the organization, asking others to hold them accountable.


If a video camera captured your leadership team in action for a full day, how would you feel about that video being used as training for the rest of the organization? Serving on a leadership team should be viewed as a privilege. And along with that privilege comes a responsibility to behave in ways you would be proud to have the rest of the organization emulate.

How’s your company dealing with its internal communications issues? Are these dynamic familiar? Share with us your thoughts in the comment section below!

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