How To Prevent Your Team Culture Becoming Toxic During Change

By Heather Campbell

Hope your week has gone well and brought plenty of good times. My week seems to have been more challenging – not on a personal level, but more that I am finding people are feeling down just now. There’s so much negative news and growing uncertainty. This isn’t impacting people just in personal lives. I’m really noticing it in many of the organisations I work with too, and I see a growth in toxic cultures.

Covid-19 brought a swell of camaraderie and support in the early stages as people migrated to WFH and we all supported frontline workers. The current cost of living crisis feels different. It feels like a more individualised threat.

I think that’s why there is toxicity rather than support around. This is a challenge for many of the leaders I’m coaching and I thought it might be something you’re noticing too. That’s why I’m exploring this topic today and sharing four leadership practices that will keep toxicity at bay.

1.Create more space for one-to-one conversations

At any time, scheduled one-to-one conversations create the opportunity for the leader and each member of their team to have the in-depth conversations that drive up performance, build relationships and make sure problems are solved when they are molehills rather than mountains. They are an important addition to all those in-the-moment conversations that take place daily and which are inevitably focussed on fire-fighting. Scheduled one-to-one conversations create the opportunity to plan how to avoid the fire in the first place.

During times of greater uncertainty or challenge, scheduled one-to-one time takes on a whole new level of importance. They give each individual the opportunity to ask the questions that are important to them, to share the concerns that are keeping them awake, and to get the information that they will find most meaningful.

I find that leaders often try to cover off these topics in team meetings. It can seem like this is more efficient. While efficiency may be higher in terms of saving time, effectiveness is lost in terms of creating the confidential space of the one-to-one. Team meetings simply do not offer the privacy needed to cover off the topics that individuals really want to discuss.

So, step number 1. Make sure you create space for regular one-to-one conversations. If you already have these, then make sure you are focussing them on the individual’s needs, not just on business.

2.Make it easy to stay visible

Times of uncertainty or challenge are also times when leaders are likely to be particularly busy. They are often involved in even more meetings. They are often holed away in private spaces trying to work through complex data. As well as all this extra pressure, it can be tempting to stay away from people so that they don’t ask you questions that you can’t yet answer.

With all of this going on, it’s easy to become less visible just at a time when people want to see you around more. Tiny things can have a big negative impact. In one organisation I was working with, the CEO did immeasurable damage because he closed the blinds on the office window that connected to a main corridor at a time when people were feeling especially vulnerable.

You know you need to stay visible and, while it’s easy to get out and about when everyone’s in one location, this is becoming less and less the reality for most leaders.

Luckily, technology is our friend here as it makes it easy to prepare short video updates. To make it easy to figure out what to talk about, just think of two or three questions you’ve been asked recently, get online and answer those. If one person has wanted an answer to these questions, you can bet that many others do too.

And a really practical piece of advice that makes it so much easier to create these quick videos. Buy a table-top ring-light! The ring-light makes sure you’re well-lit and solves the problem of how to balance your mobile while you concentrate on your message. It makes it quicker and easier to update people on what’s happening and that makes it more likely that you’ll do it consistently.

3.Be mindful of your own behaviour

When sensitivities are running high, people will be acutely aware of a terse response from you, they will particularly notice side conversations you have, they will read more into any off-the-cuff statement you make. People will read more into your behaviour, however innocent that behaviour may be.

That’s why you need to be mindful of every interaction you have – and every interaction you don’t have too. They will be noticed and misinterpreted all to easily.

But how can you do this when you have so many other things going on and are already likely to be more stressed yourself? After all, when we’re stressed, our temper can fray more easily. And isn’t it inauthentic to be constantly monitoring and managing your behaviour?

Yes, it’s true that our tempers get shorter when we are under stress. That’s why I cover taking of yourself in (4) below.

And being authentic isn’t about letting it all hang out. I recommend appropriate authenticity for any leader. Appropriate authenticity means that you are always behaving genuinely – it’s just that your behaviour is managed in a way that is appropriate to your role and responsibility. You already display appropriate authenticity in many settings – you behave differently with your family, with friends, with work colleagues, with your boss. You can be authentically you in all these settings – but the amount of the authentic you that you choose to show will vary depending on the situation.

4.Take care of yourself

The culture in your team, division or organisation is driven by you, depending on your level within the business and how many people you impact. If you are stressed, tired, worried….your behaviours will show this…and those behaviours will create fertile ground for a toxic culture to grow. If you are rested, in control and confident…your behaviours will show this…and those behaviours will create a positive culture, one where people feel high trust in you and in each other.

Sadly, right now in this period of uncertainty, I am seeing cultures implode as gossip, back-biting and blame grow exponentially, while trust, transparency and support disappear. Often, this implosion can be traced to the behaviour of the leader of that team, division or organisation.

You are not superhuman and, as one leader pointed out recently, he may be very well remunerated but he has bills and financial responsibilities that are starting to outstrip his income. He feels insecure. He doesn’t know what will happen to his role. He also knows that he needs to manage these fears so that they don’t impact the way he is leading.

For this individual, working through this isn’t simply about taking a walk or getting to the gym more often. Right now, this actually seems like just more pressure.

Of course, simple self-care routines may be enough for you so please don’t give up on them. But you may also find that you need more practical support – in-depth financial advice or the benefit of a coach who can offer you a confidential sounding board may be more relevant in terms of the self-care you need today.

Whatever it is, don’t put care for yourself to the bottom of your agenda. Keep it a priority because points 1 – 3 depend on you being in the right frame of mind to implement them in the first place.

These are four key points that you can follow to ensure that you create a positive culture and avoid creating an environment that let’s toxicity flourish.

And as always – in fact, now more than ever – observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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