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Jennifer V. Miller


How Leaders Can Create a Pocket of Excellence in a Toxic Workplace

Don’t write your company off just yet

Published: Thursday, March 30, 2023 - 11:03

Being a leader is tough enough, but it’s downright demoralizing if you feel like you’re swimming upstream against the currents of a toxic workplace. If you want to stand apart and make a positive difference at work, it might seem like you’re living in this weird, misshapen house where some of the doorways don’t lead anywhere, a few of the rooms don’t connect to other rooms and... are those people actually using tin cans as a way to communicate from one floor to the other? Welcome to the Weird Work House.

Of course, finding a new job is an option, but perhaps there are reasons you want to stay put. Take heart: You can create a pocket of excellence in an otherwise unhealthy work environment.

When management unintentionally creates toxicity

Let’s face it: A lot of workplaces are dysfunctional, and some of them are downright toxic. Much of that dysfunction is a direct result of the company culture unintentionally created by leaders’ behaviors. Have you ever seen a vision statement in a company cafeteria that says, “We are an industry leader in dysfunction. Our employees are confused, distrustful, and disgusted. We’re losing customer loyalty and market share by double digits each year.”

No, of course you don’t see that, because that’s not what senior management intended to create. But somewhere along the way, things got messed up. There’s a disconnect between the stated vision and the actual behaviors of the company’s top leaders. And as fantastic as it would be for company CEOs to wake up one day and realize that their teams have created this mess, how likely is that?

Not very likely, you answer in disgust.

Change the culture where you are

Don’t write your company off just yet. If you have a leadership role in your organization you can still make a difference, even if you live in the Weird Work House. Maybe you can’t change the culture in the entire organization, says S. Chris Edmonds, an expert on workplace culture, but you can certainly change it in your own little “room” of the house—a pocket of excellence in an otherwise distorted culture. You can choose to call the shots in your work team, department, or division. When I interviewed Edmonds for the release of his book The Culture Engine (Wiley, 2014), he told me, “You [as a leader] can do anything that you want. And so, why not be a great boss? Why not create a great team? Why not craft an environment that is less stressful, more engaging, more fun (the other “F” word), and more productive?”

Edmonds has worked with thousands of leaders who have looked around and realized that something wasn’t working with their team. Perhaps it was a slump in productivity, lack of civility, or a general feeling of workplace malaise. Whatever the reason, Edmonds says, don’t wait around for someone higher up in the food chain to make things right. It would be fantastic, he says, if a CEO or other senior leader said, “Our culture is not good, and we need to fix it,” but that’s not the norm.

Four things you can do right now to create a pocket of excellence

You can get to work right now by doing the following things to make positive refinements within your sphere of influence.

Create an “organizational constitution” for your department. This is a written document that outlines your leadership vision for the department’s purpose, values, strategies, and goals. Edmonds has found that using the phrase “organizational constitution” with team members is enough to intrigue them. “It’s like you can see them [team members] literally leaning toward you, wondering about it. That’s what you want: You want to draw people toward you” with your vision.

Define values in behavioral terms. Many organizations have values statements, but far fewer go the extra step of actually specifying what it means to, for example, “demonstrate integrity” in behavioral terms. Do this right now: Ask your team to tell you very specifically, “What does a person say or do that demonstrates he or she has integrity?” Chances are, you’ll get as many different answers as you have team members. That’s why it’s critical that you have these very specific conversations with your team and help them understand what will be accepted as evidence that they are acting with “integrity.”

Be a role model. Now, this probably comes as no surprise to you, right? The best leaders are those that “walk the talk.” Edmonds takes it even further: He jokingly says that once a leader has committed to “living the values,” she’ll never be able to run a yellow light or take cuts in lines again—because people are watching. Taking on this “values” stuff is serious business. You don’t have to be perfect (no one is), but you do have to intentionally make an effort every day to live your values, both inside and outside of work.

Hold everyone equally accountable for achieving performance results and demonstrating company values. In most organizations, there is plenty of focus on results, and lots of systems in place to monitor achievement of those results. Edmonds’ work stresses an equal emphasis on what he calls “values accountability.” Are team members (and their leaders) acting in alignment with the behavioral values stated in the organizational constitution? He recommends implementing formal processes in which leaders are evaluated on their ability to uphold the values of the company. It goes back to being a role model: If you, as the leader, aren’t demonstrating organizational values, then how can you expect your team to do so?

Don’t let living in the Weird Work House keep you from doing your best as a leader. You deserve more, and so does your team. Use these four strategies to help create a pocket of excellence in a toxic work environment.

If you want to learn more about the concepts in Edmonds’ book, read the articles in my Culture Engine series, which features his interview as well as other posts related to his book.

First published March 13, 2023, on People Equation.


About The Author

Jennifer V. Miller’s picture

Jennifer V. Miller

Jennifer V. Miller researches and writes about the evolving role of leadership in the workplace. She is a co-author of two leadership books and the creator of the award-winning blog People Equation.