Turning up the heat on toxic culture Three things you can do right now to improve organisational culture.

By Michael Brown

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Michael Brown

One of the irritating things about good culture is that it's difficult to achieve. Uniting everyone around a common mission is no mean feat. There's lots to stand in its way – much of it related to human nature. As a founder and leader of ad industry businesses, a sector with a reputation for toxic culture, I have a long-term interest in working out ways to dissipate the heat. Here's my top three.

One: Values Outing

Much has been said about the first step to shape good culture; take a values-first approach to your recruitment; a signpost to all that there's a defined, identifiable culture. Equally, you'll find swathes of expert opinion telling you that all decisions taken daily in your business should be guided by your values and mission. Assuming that your leadership team actually live and breathe both, I'm thinking here of the recent Brewdog debacle, then what about your people? How can you be sure those you bring in are down with your vision? After all, it's difficult to really know if the person who turns up to do the job is the same person who turned up for the interviews.

One way to aid your judgement is values outing. Ask your candidates to metaphorically rip up their CV and get them to think about their career achievements in a different way; to show you how they have lived your organisation's values by reworking and categorising the structure of their CV using each of your values as a heading.

The foreword to a fascinating survey of the value of values in business by the consultancy firm Maitland* asked how many CEOs could honestly say the values they so lovingly crafted were fully lived within their organisation. A values-outing exercise will crystalise your culture in the minds of your people on day one of their journey.

Two: Do an equality audit

Workplace inequality – there's a lot of it about. Any self-respecting entrepreneur needs to be aware to their own unconscious biases that can cause the flawed decision making leading to inequality and a toxic culture.

You should also be vigilant to inequality and therefore toxic culture, creeping in through the back door as your enterprise grows. Regularly auditing and measuring team engagement is a way to guard against this. The accepted HR way to measure engagement is asking people if they're proud to be part of your business and further, would they recommend it as a great place to work. A yes to both are indicators they're "engaged'. Consider this in context of those communities most frequently discriminated against at work. If women recommend your business as a great place to work to other women outside the organisation, that would be an indicator you're getting some things right. You might then extend measurement to other groups; the UK's 2010 Inequalities Act protects 9 characteristics; would your LGBTQ+ community be highly engaged for instance.

I'm not suggesting that the existence of equality in any organisation can be ascertained through this exercise alone, but as an indication for how your culture is perceived internally, and which areas need to improve, then asking people inside any organisation for their view is a good place to start – perception is everything.

Three: Sort your meeting mix

A perfect environment to shape good culture is in that staple activity of business - the meeting.

It has been documented by many women in many places, men seem to speak more in meetings. Often speaking over women, and diverting the course of that person's creative flow, refocusing the room to the interrupter's ideas – and as has also been commented on to infinity; repackaging ideas expressed earlier by women as their own. It's my view, and direct experience, that many brilliant trains of thought are ruined in this way.

Not just mine; reams of research and commentary exist around the negative experience of meetings when viewed through the eyes of women. Google it.

I spoke to Jules Chappell OBE about her experience. Jules worked at the Foreign Office. She was posted to Baghdad as part of the governance team after the fall of Saddam Hussein, to work with Iraqi women's groups, helping female leaders join the political process after the conflict. She later became the UK's youngest ambassador, taking her post in Guatemala in 2009 aged 31. Jules inevitably attended lots of meetings.

"My biggest take away if you want a meeting to work is getting the right people in the room. Countless times I've sat through talks in rooms full of men, where clever language was agreed and signed, but ultimately nothing changed on the ground. It makes a big difference if those at the table are more diverse,representative of the communities involved or actually impacted by the issue."

Consider the volume of meetings happening daily globally. It is estimated that 55 million meetings happen every day in America alone*. Whatever the real number, we should assume this isn't a minor source of tension. It's a major culture warping issue that's endemic and destabilising for 50% of the working population.

If the aim of your meeting is to achieve balanced, representative decisions (key ingredients of good culture) then you'll fail if you let the diverters hog all the airtime.


*The Values most Valued by UK plc (Maitland)

*55 Million: A fresh look at the number, effectiveness and cost of meetings in the U.S. (Lucid Blog)

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