Thought for the week

Toxic Leadership: Exploring Cover-Up Culture

With over thirty years of experience in leadership development and culture change, we explain the impact and causes of cover-up culture. Why are so many organisations experiencing toxic leadership?

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'The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth' — a three-part BBC documentary, explores what caused the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster and the events that preceded it. NASA employees spoke out about a toxic leadership culture that led to cover-up and misjudgement. While junior engineers recognised the danger of foam hitting the wing during take-off, senior management were in denial and refused to listen.

One engineer described management as a club with a strict chain of command protocol. You were expected not to approach them directly or to ask specific questions. Several individuals were concerned that speaking out about the foam incident would jeopardise their careers. An investigation later criticised NASA for a 'culture of complacency' that caused lower-level employees to be ignored.

It seems the lessons from the Columbia shuttle disaster were not fully learned, as dysfunctional leadership cultures remain. The Post Office, NHS, Boeing, the National Police Federation and McDonald's have each been in the news for cover-ups. In McDonald's' case, numerous workers across the fast-food branches reported harassment but were ignored by senior management.

As culture change consultants, we see this wilful blindness in all sorts of organisations. CEO Thom Dennis once worked with a company where the CEO hid the truth from investors. As a result, they lost around £900 million.

What Causes a Cover-Up Culture in Organisations?

A leader's behaviour sets the tone for an entire organisation. There are many stuck in a mindset that prioritises profit over people — disregarding matters that do not directly affect the bottom line. Some lack visionary, empathetic leadership skills, relying on fear and control to maintain their authority.

A global study by consultant Margot Faraci shows that 23% of UK leaders create an environment of fear. The study — involving 2,500 emerging leaders — also shows that 67% of respondents are hesitant to share their opinions while 88% consistently fear making mistakes.

When there is fear, there is also low trust, honesty and communication. Without openly saying it, people are rewarded for keeping their heads down rather than causing trouble by speaking out. It's easy to believe what we want to believe instead of facing the truth.

According to Harvard Business Review, we are 'naturally wired' to blame others if things go wrong. Cover-ups can be a case of 'he said, she said' where everyone stays silent to avoid blame. Ego also impacts our ability to confront cover-ups. When leaders prioritise their reputation and self-interest over accountability and transparency, they likely avoid the truth to protect their reputation.

What should be done to overcome cover-up culture?

Cover-up culture, like all poor cultures, is systemic. Handling one toxic leader is not enough to fix the problem. But addressing leadership issues can create a ripple effect throughout a company.

Many organisations refuse to admit that their culture has the potential to be toxic. Recognising that your business could be hiding cover-ups or misconduct makes it much easier to identify what's going on.

Act with respect rather than superiority

When you walk into a room, do people instantly fall silent and retreat? Or do they say hello, initiate a conversation, and remain calm? If it's the former, it suggests a toxic culture. When people become leaders, they can take the opportunity to act superiorly, somehow believing they are better than everyone else and deserve special treatment.

It results in a hierarchy culture in which employees' opinions and ideas are considered less valuable. Establish regular lines of communication, leave your door open, and give your staff the time of day. Removing hierarchy creates a more inclusive and collaborative work environment and unleashes creativity.

Follow protocols carefully instead of blindly

During the early stages of the Post Office Horizon scandal, people blindly believed in the system rather than the mounting evidence that was in front of them. By encouraging employees to be critical thinkers, you can enable people to be open-minded and challenge what they see.

Champion a transparency culture

Admit to your mistakes and take full responsibility; ask for and act on feedback. The cover-ups in the office may be from middle management who fear telling the truth to executives, so it's crucial that everyone within an organisation feels comfortable opening up.

At a basic level, thank staff when they come forward and ask for their advice. What could be learned from this incident and what would they do now?

Manage expectations and workloads

Stress and high pressure can lead to fear and burnout. Feeling overwhelmed can encourage people to stay silent and hide their concerns, making things easier for them. Leaders are responsible for ensuring employees are not burned out due to overload and unattainable goals.

Implement zero tolerance policies

People blindly ignore policies when they are not upheld, as was the case at McDonald's. Zero tolerance must apply to everyone within an organisation and be consistently enforced. Accountability and consequences for senior executives' actions must be the same.

Engage with culture change consultants

Rob Behrens, the health service ombudsman for England, published a report showing that some NHS staff were complicit in cover-ups that impacted patient healthcare. In one case, the Trust's investigation did not uncover failures, but the ombudsman did.

Internal facilitators and consultants lack the perspective that is necessary for a deep cultural understanding. If psychological safety is poor and people feel afraid to speak out, it is impossible to get to the root of an issue. Plus, internal staff have biases and preconceptions that can impact their findings.

Culture is like a weed. When you ignore them, their growth continues. Attempt to pull them out with surface-level techniques and they will return. But get to the root and you can stop toxic leadership and work culture from recurring. We provide a range of cutting-edge techniques to investigate and address cultural issues that lead to toxic environments where cover-ups are common. Contact us via the form below and one of our consultants will be in touch.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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Thought for the week

Toxic Leadership: Exploring Cover-Up Culture

With over thirty years of experience in leadership development and culture change, we explain the impact and causes of cover-up culture. Why are so many organisations experiencing toxic leadership?

Image caption here
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

'The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth' — a three-part BBC documentary, explores what caused the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster and the events that preceded it. NASA employees spoke out about a toxic leadership culture that led to cover-up and misjudgement. While junior engineers recognised the danger of foam hitting the wing during take-off, senior management were in denial and refused to listen.

One engineer described management as a club with a strict chain of command protocol. You were expected not to approach them directly or to ask specific questions. Several individuals were concerned that speaking out about the foam incident would jeopardise their careers. An investigation later criticised NASA for a 'culture of complacency' that caused lower-level employees to be ignored.

It seems the lessons from the Columbia shuttle disaster were not fully learned, as dysfunctional leadership cultures remain. The Post Office, NHS, Boeing, the National Police Federation and McDonald's have each been in the news for cover-ups. In McDonald's' case, numerous workers across the fast-food branches reported harassment but were ignored by senior management.

As culture change consultants, we see this wilful blindness in all sorts of organisations. CEO Thom Dennis once worked with a company where the CEO hid the truth from investors. As a result, they lost around £900 million.

What Causes a Cover-Up Culture in Organisations?

A leader's behaviour sets the tone for an entire organisation. There are many stuck in a mindset that prioritises profit over people — disregarding matters that do not directly affect the bottom line. Some lack visionary, empathetic leadership skills, relying on fear and control to maintain their authority.

A global study by consultant Margot Faraci shows that 23% of UK leaders create an environment of fear. The study — involving 2,500 emerging leaders — also shows that 67% of respondents are hesitant to share their opinions while 88% consistently fear making mistakes.

When there is fear, there is also low trust, honesty and communication. Without openly saying it, people are rewarded for keeping their heads down rather than causing trouble by speaking out. It's easy to believe what we want to believe instead of facing the truth.

According to Harvard Business Review, we are 'naturally wired' to blame others if things go wrong. Cover-ups can be a case of 'he said, she said' where everyone stays silent to avoid blame. Ego also impacts our ability to confront cover-ups. When leaders prioritise their reputation and self-interest over accountability and transparency, they likely avoid the truth to protect their reputation.

What should be done to overcome cover-up culture?

Cover-up culture, like all poor cultures, is systemic. Handling one toxic leader is not enough to fix the problem. But addressing leadership issues can create a ripple effect throughout a company.

Many organisations refuse to admit that their culture has the potential to be toxic. Recognising that your business could be hiding cover-ups or misconduct makes it much easier to identify what's going on.

Act with respect rather than superiority

When you walk into a room, do people instantly fall silent and retreat? Or do they say hello, initiate a conversation, and remain calm? If it's the former, it suggests a toxic culture. When people become leaders, they can take the opportunity to act superiorly, somehow believing they are better than everyone else and deserve special treatment.

It results in a hierarchy culture in which employees' opinions and ideas are considered less valuable. Establish regular lines of communication, leave your door open, and give your staff the time of day. Removing hierarchy creates a more inclusive and collaborative work environment and unleashes creativity.

Follow protocols carefully instead of blindly

During the early stages of the Post Office Horizon scandal, people blindly believed in the system rather than the mounting evidence that was in front of them. By encouraging employees to be critical thinkers, you can enable people to be open-minded and challenge what they see.

Champion a transparency culture

Admit to your mistakes and take full responsibility; ask for and act on feedback. The cover-ups in the office may be from middle management who fear telling the truth to executives, so it's crucial that everyone within an organisation feels comfortable opening up.

At a basic level, thank staff when they come forward and ask for their advice. What could be learned from this incident and what would they do now?

Manage expectations and workloads

Stress and high pressure can lead to fear and burnout. Feeling overwhelmed can encourage people to stay silent and hide their concerns, making things easier for them. Leaders are responsible for ensuring employees are not burned out due to overload and unattainable goals.

Implement zero tolerance policies

People blindly ignore policies when they are not upheld, as was the case at McDonald's. Zero tolerance must apply to everyone within an organisation and be consistently enforced. Accountability and consequences for senior executives' actions must be the same.

Engage with culture change consultants

Rob Behrens, the health service ombudsman for England, published a report showing that some NHS staff were complicit in cover-ups that impacted patient healthcare. In one case, the Trust's investigation did not uncover failures, but the ombudsman did.

Internal facilitators and consultants lack the perspective that is necessary for a deep cultural understanding. If psychological safety is poor and people feel afraid to speak out, it is impossible to get to the root of an issue. Plus, internal staff have biases and preconceptions that can impact their findings.

Culture is like a weed. When you ignore them, their growth continues. Attempt to pull them out with surface-level techniques and they will return. But get to the root and you can stop toxic leadership and work culture from recurring. We provide a range of cutting-edge techniques to investigate and address cultural issues that lead to toxic environments where cover-ups are common. Contact us via the form below and one of our consultants will be in touch.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
No items found.
Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Contributed by:

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