Confronting Toxic Company Culture with Servant Leadership

  • March 9, 2018

Would you believe that corporate culture is more important to your company’s success than strategy, operating model, or research and development? Well, there is a good chance your employees do. Eighty-four percent of more than 2,200 participants in one survey ranked culture as most important to success, and 51 percent said their organization needed a “major culture overhaul.” And millennials, who now make up the largest share of the U.S. workforce, will continue to drive cultural change in the years ahead.

It’s not hard for toxic traits to creep into company culture over time. The National Business Research Institute defines a toxic company culture as one that stifles or oppresses workers and is rife with negativity and aggression—including teasing, scapegoating, and bullying. This type of environment is bad for employees and businesses alike, creating a culture of fear that limits creativity and innovation. It kills collaboration and trust and leads to absenteeism, turnover, and diminished productivity. But there’s good news: Servant leadership can help combat a toxic company culture. It makes employees responsible for strategic goals and management responsive to employee needs.

Servant Leadership Sets the Tone for Company Culture

The servant leader’s first task is to establish values and a compelling vision for their organization. In the essay collection Servant Leadership in Action, edited by Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell, Blanchard writes in his contribution: “Once an organization has a compelling vision, they can set goals and define strategic initiatives that suggest what people should be focusing on right now. With a compelling vision, these goals and strategic initiatives take on more meaning and therefore are not seen as a threat, but as part of the bigger picture.” Valuing people over profits is the first step toward changing a toxic company culture.

Valuing people over profits can help organizations recruit and retain millennials, too. Reflecting millennial values like diversity and inclusion, corporate social responsibility, and leadership development in corporate values can help millennials become more engaged, loyal, and productive team members. In The Millennial Myth, author Crystal Kadakia writes, “What creates loyalty for modern talent if not the paycheck? Recall, based on its definition, that loyalty is created by providing something to believe in. Specifically, modern talent is inspired and attracted by doing social good.” Servant leadership lays a foundation for that social good.

Servant Leadership Helps Rid Organizations of Fear, Shame

What motivates your employees? In toxic company cultures, the answer is often fear and shame. Jan West, the CEO and chairman of the board of the National Business Research Institute, writes that when fear is used as a motivator, employees “only feel capable of doing enough work to get by” and are “afraid to attract attention to themselves because attention is never positive.” The consequence becomes “not innovation, but stagnation.”

Servant leadership flips the script. Employees are beholden to a higher purpose— corporate values and strategic vision—not to the whims of a manager. The role of the manager becomes helping employees solve problems and accomplish goals. In her contribution to Servant Leadership in Action, author Brené Brown explains that servant leadership and shame culture cannot coexist because “the foundation of servant leadership is courage and shame breeds fear.” To build shame-resistant organizations, Brown suggests having honest conversations with employees about shame, as well as teaching staff members to provide feedback that encourages growth and engagement. And, as millennials continue to drive culture change, Brown’s last point is especially relevant. Gallup reports that millennials who received regular feedback from their supervisors are nearly twice as engaged as their peers at work.

Servant Leadership Builds Bold, Inspiring Leaders

Leaders set the tone for company culture—and, unfortunately, leadership skills don’t come naturally to most people. In fact, Gallup has found that just one in 10 people possess the natural talent to manage. And most organizations don’t invest enough resources in leadership training. So many organizational leaders mean well, but they don’t necessarily do well. Servant leadership provides a framework that emphasizes a higher purpose, mutual respect, and serving others.

In Dare to Serve, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Cheryl Bachelder writes, “Most leaders claim to value human dignity; far too many discard it quickly when under pressure at work.” That’s when toxic company culture creeps in. Servant leaders can learn to avoid this by listening to people, being patient with others’ imperfections, and emphasizing their own personal responsibility. “And so it is with Dare-to-Serve Leadership: to serve others well, you must look in the mirror—to see your own shortcomings and make the requisite changes in yourself. It is your personal responsibility to do so. You will have no capacity to serve others unless you can take responsibility for your own self,” writes Bachelder.

The Final Word on Servant Leadership and Toxic Company Culture

As millennials continue to change corporate culture, servant leadership can help lead the way. It provides a framework for organizations to define values and strategic goals. It makes employees—instead of managers—beholden to a higher purpose, and it makes managers responsive to employee needs. Finally, servant leadership can help managers become better leaders—and better people, too. 

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