Monday 4 February 2013

Toxic Culture; what is it and how do you change it?

This word toxic is a media term and it sounds pretty nasty. If something is toxic it would have to be untouchable but let’s come back to that later. Another term that is popular is greed. This one I am more familiar with. Note I am always subtly mentioning it in my articles as I see it as a fundamental route problem in all parts of the economic system of our society. It needs to be tackled with an iron fist therefore forgive me for writing a little more than usual.

Greed has been around for centuries. In religious faiths and in the wider society as a whole this is not treated lightly and is considered evil. Let us try to bring it up to date into today’s world. Greed is the pursuit of wealth. More simply put it is the pursuit of money, pleasures and or materialism. It is by nature very selfish. It is linked to self-gain, wealth, status and power. Typically it can be exploiting people, manipulation for personal gain for increasing their own wealth. In business it can easily lead to loss of integrity, mistrust, high stress level, emotional imbalance, deceitfulness, treachery, risk taking or bribery. It can cause financial debts, lawsuits, economic instability, and destabilise relationships. People who behave this way think they are happy but deep down they are not and are simply deceived and not doing any good at all. It will certainly cause harm to yourself and to so many others around you.

In certain sectors of the economy and of certain banks this is very evident and these individuals are everywhere in our service sector invariably floating around the upper chains of the hierarchical system and often sadly instilled into the psyche of the young fresh intake. How do we change that? How do we inform an individual with an MBA from Harvard earning 1 million a year and has a 5 million house who has been around a while and whose conduct involved the above. Very difficult; most likely he will not listen to you.
If I read this recent article about the wealth management division in Barclays and their ruthless culture in the pursuit of revenue; I would not touch it with a barge pole. (It is not just Barclays) Now I understand why the media call this culture toxic. How could I trust these people with little integrity in their work who are simply rotten in the core and have lost sight of themselves? They are working for their own gain. I would never do business with these people. They are not quality people. They were probably good once upon a time but somewhere along the line they lost it, their talent, and their sense of purpose and in the end themselves. 5 million pound house or not, it makes no difference. This is greed. It is as simple as that.

The difficulty with greed is it is in the interior and in the mind set. It can grip you and it will not go away and worse of all you are unable to see it and recognise it in yourself. I know about it because I suffered it too. Note I use the word suffering in that it is very much a human failing in our sub conscience. If you are leading a business with this culture, your options and solutions are limited. If you are in a bank purely for your own self gain; well the public won’t buy it. How can you be in a service sector business which is about serving and include money and therefore must entail the highest levels of trust and then working purely for your own interest; therein lays the conflict?

I came from a culture in business that was toxic. An individualistic and ipseite culture was prevalent where most people were in it for their own gain myself included. There were very few people amongst us that we could trust. We tolerated and turned a blind eye to all our failings in character. The only question we were familiar with is how we could make more? We even had an internal system that portrayed each individual’s revenue as a measurement of success. (That one is a killer!) Never how can I better myself in order to understand and serve the needs? Or if there is a problem how can I make a difference? In the end the business lost its integrity and much of its creativity.

I also had a boss once (not just that one) with a domineering personality in his 60.s. He was ruthless, manipulative for his own self gain. It was all about the revenue and his love for money. He played the game with clients and was good at it and he made revenue. He had fast cars, large house, a yacht in the South of France. I began not to like him and the way he operated behind closed doors. Even some clients sensed the lack of integrity on our firm. I began to challenge him afraid at first as he often instilled fear. Somehow we took major risks as we began to see through him and grew less afraid as our confidence grew. Personality yes but he had no character; more to the point he was a coward and we felt he had to go. In the end I lost my position and a considerable amount of money. Shortly thereafter he lost his. Unexpectedly 6 months later I was called to take over.

So the solutions are as follows: Strong courageous leadership and notably leadership by example. Code of conduct, values, good governance and purpose are essential. Re-training is very important to continue to give people a purpose and raise their self-awareness. Remuneration and fees are key issues to look at i.e. you go straight for the carrot. A strong ethical recruitment intake. Regulation is a double edge sword as it stifles the talent of the honest worker and brings down morale. It will certainly upset the dishonest worker as it affects his revenue. They may even find a way round it. Change in ourselves will invariably mean change in our comfort zone, perhaps in the environment around us and our hearts will resist; therein lays the fear factor?

In the worst case scenarios what does one do with toxic waste; there is only one solution. You get rid of it. So if your individuals are toxic and unable to change, you get rid of them. If it is a whole department close it down. What we don’t want are these individuals who are toxic to spread it amongst others like an illness and at the expense of others. Honest people and their morale suffer. The cracks will show and then the reputation of the firm will suffer as we are seeing daily in our headlines. It is the only solution. Invariable a person who suffers from greed falls to the bottom and into his own mud having achieved little of any value and then perhaps only then he might start thinking; he may see it and he may change. We don’t want them around until they change. Note the opposite of greed is charity, sacrifice and generosity.

I am certain and what Time MCG argues day by day that one can drive our success responsibly in our businesses by achieving a purpose, and maintaining strong values, integrity and good character at all levels of education, experience or background.  It is by then we can truly enjoy our work and inspire others around you.

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