It’s not easy for me to tell people they are leading a toxic organization. It really isn’t. I would rather tell them their organization is flourishing. Yet, about 25% of the organizations that we survey are … how can I say it any other way, toxic.
We have come to admire the courage it takes for a leader to assess the health of their culture. Especially, when they know it isn’t healthy. Bill Hybels talks about the courage it took for him to do Willow’s staff engagement survey for the first time 6 years ago. He admits, he knew in his heart, things weren’t going so well. But, remember, as Bill says, facts are our friends. Experts have identified that it’s the leaders’ job to name and communicate reality. This could be why Paul exhorts those with the spiritual gift of leadership to take our responsibility seriously (Romans 12:8).
When we communicate the four levels of health in Christian organizations, toxic, critical moment, healthy and flourishing; the following are the characteristics we use to describe toxic.
- Highly political
- Unclear direction
- No trust
- Autocratic leadership
- Low staff engagement
Others have described toxic workplace characteristics to include workers who are motivated by personal gain (power, money, status) or are just plain mean-spirited.
So how do you break out of a toxic state?
- Discover the truth about your culture by measuring it. We recommend a proven and tested engagement survey instrument that includes a spiritual dimension for Christian organizations.
- Identify Strengths and Opportunities for Improvement. This is not as simple as many make it out to be. For example, listing survey questions by their averages, high to low, is misleading. Guess what? When you do a simple high to low listing, compensation will always come out low. This does not mean compensation is a weakness. The key to identifying your strengths and weaknesses is looking at your results in the context of similar organizations.
- Prioritize Actions Based on Impact. Having focused on Christian organizations for over a dozen years, it is clear the areas that impact staff engagement are VERY different from secular organizations. Identifying action items that significantly impact staff engagement is critical for greatest effect. Our research shows several items are much more important to re-establishing a healthy staff culture than others.
- Change Starts with the Top Leader. We could argue that this should be first. But sometimes we need to complete the previous steps to get the top leader on board. In reality, in Christian organizations, THE top leader has to be behind this initiative 100% and lead the change. The next reality is that in order for the culture to change, the top leader must be willing to embrace personal change first.
- Become a Culture Maniac (Because Change is Hard!) Organizations in the toxic zone are often stuck. At this stage they have often tried a couple of initiatives to improve things, but they didn’t work. This is not a part-time, do it when we have time issue. As the term maniac is defined, leaders must become overly zealous and enthusiastic about a comprehensive initiative to change their culture. It’s just plain hard work.
We have great compassion for leaders of toxic organizations and we are committed to helping them transform. These five steps are a good start to the journey, but they are only the beginning. Yet, regardless of where you think you are, let’s start that process today. Why? Because you won’t believe how much more effective your organization will perform, and how much more joy you (and everyone else) will experience in the process.