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It’s just not cricket: how to put the brakes on when culture turns toxic

With the behaviour of sports teams and businesses in the spotlight as a result of their cultures, we were recently asked for our insights for the MYOB blog…

When the behaviour of a few bad eggs goes against your company values, where does personal responsibility come into play? When does it become a cultural responsibility?

Earlier this week, Cricket Australia released a report into its culture as a response to Sandpaper-Gate.

The cricketers involved in cheating were promptly given one-year bans from playing professionally.

Already there are calls for the bans to be lifted – advocators say that those responsible are merely products of a toxic culture.

But how do you define a poor culture and how it feeds into a person’s actions?

It’s a fine line that’s hard to see. That’s why the report is a whopping 145 pages.

In the findings, it’s suggested that Cricket Australia’s poor culture stemmed from the leadership team – but no amount of finger pointing will bring about a positive resolution.

Culture is bigger than leadership (but direction from the top helps). “It would be easy to say that bad cultures happen due to a lack of good leadership, but the truth is usually more complex,” director at Balance at Work, Susan Rochester, told The Pulse.

Looking at the leadership as a sign of poor culture is glimpsing at one part of the picture.

Invariably poor culture spreads from each person’s questionable actions.

“If there’s an unhealthy culture there, those who don’t fit it will leave and those who remain will adapt to it,” said Rochester.

“If they’re unwilling to take responsibility to change themselves or the culture, then using culture as an excuse for behaviour they know to be wrong can be the most comfortable way to explain what they’ve done and avoid responsibility.”

But simply saying individuals are to blame is skimming the surface.

Rochester said leaders who made it clear that “hitting the numbers” was numero uno for an organisation couldn’t be surprised when employees did all they could to hit those numbers.

In the case of the “high-performance” Australian cricket team, where winning is the most important thing, the door was open for good players to do bad things – to achieve it.

“It is the management’s responsibility to create an environment where a healthy culture and high performance can co-exist. There is no need for an either/or relationship between the two – it is possible to have both,” said Rochester.

So, what can leaders do to recognise that a poor culture is brewing before those outside the company pick up on the vibe?

Spot the signs, then turn it around

Seeing something negative creep into your organisational culture is not easy to notice – think about the frog in boiling water.

If you’ve been there since the beginning, you may not notice the water temperature’s on the rise.

But Rochester said there are a few signs when things start going wrong:

  • Employees become defensive and protective of their project
  • They lack a willingness to share information
  • An increase in the formation of cliques and the spread of gossip
  • An increase in staff grievances and customer complaints

Once you’ve identified that a poor culture has developed (or is at risk of developing), there are a few rescue remedies at hand.

Rochester said several models help, but it usually boils down to three key steps.

“Thinking about existing behaviours in your organisation and how these are driven by the cultural levers of policies, procedures, systems and rules is a good first step,” she said.

“Once these have been mapped, then it’s usually quite easy to see how the behaviours are driving the outcomes the company is getting.”

These levers could be what KPIs are in place and how meeting those KPIs are rewarded. Another lever could be whether staff are aware of the core values of the organisation, or how people are held accountable.

If you have a handle on the current behaviour, define what culture you want to see.

“Once you know the outcomes you want, then ask what are the behaviours and the levers that support those behaviours that will bring us closer to our desired culture?” said Rochester.

Big or small, every company’s cultural change needs tough conversations

“Bad cultures often develop because managers with the best intentions are incapable or unwilling to back those intentions with their actions.

“They know what they want the culture to be but have either failed to make that clear or have not been good at holding people accountable to their desired values and culture.

“Making the time to have the tough conversations when they need to can make a big difference.”

This article was written by James McGrath and originally published on MYOB’s blog, The Pulse. For more business news and tips, visit www.myob.com/blog.

Is it time to audit your people and culture practices for cultural fit? Start today with our free survey!

About Susan Rochester

BSc MHRM FIML
Susan Rochester has been managing director of Balance at Work since 2006. Susan has a natural tendency to balance analytical thinking with an optimistic outlook to set direction and solve problems. She is an effective facilitator and constantly creates new and more effective ways of doing things, motivated by helping others to achieve their goals.

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