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The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager The title of this article is a famous line from School Culture Rewired by Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker, a book about creating a positive educational environment. Interestingly, the quote is most frequently cited by business leadership experts because it resonates even louder in the professional world. That’s because a company’s culture becomes more entrenched than those that occur in classrooms where populations rotate annually. Unlike teachers, CEOs don’t have the option of cultural do-overs with a fresh crop of employees every year. As a result, a few rogue employees can entirely contaminate an organization’s culture over time. Unfortunately, such conditions may compel good employees to look for greener pastures while the bad actors tend to stick around.

The High Cost of Poor Workplace Behavior

The scenario is familiar. A high-performing or important employee with a track record of disruptive or even hurtful actions in the workplace continues to carry on unchecked. Their boss doesn’t call them out because of their perceived value to the organization. They think they can’t afford to lose this person’s contributions—so they choose to let things slide. This decision has three serious side effects despite the offender’s rain-making ability:
  • The staff loses confidence and trust in their leader
  • The company culture suffers severe damage
  • A weakened public perception of the business
As hard as it may be for a leader to confront a disruptive but high-achieving employee, not doing so causes far worse consequences.
Eroding Trust
CEOs have the ultimate responsibility for their organization’s culture, and they let everyone down by turning a blind eye to poor behavior from a star employee. In doing so, they signal to the rest of the staff that it’s okay to be offensive if you bring in enough sales or manage a critical department. Employees watching intolerable coworkers avoid negative repercussions will lose respect for their boss. They’ll either start to view their leader as a coward who’s afraid to confront the troublemaker or cold-hearted because they don’t care about the welfare of the rest of the team. The leader’s credibility shrinks with either interpretation. When their boss tolerates bad behavior, people begin to mistrust the motive behind everything they do, making alignment around anything almost impossible. 
Culture Damage
Like a bad apple that spoils a whole container of fruit, it only takes one disruptive employee to trigger a downward spiral of company culture. They set a negative tone, put people on edge, and fracture teams. Poor workplace behavior comes in many forms. It can be as malevolent as sexual harassment or disrespecting people because of their ethnic background, age, or gender preference. It can manifest in thoughtless work habits, such as chronic lateness, ignoring commitments, or passing the buck. It can even crop up in seemingly harmless conduct like gossip. Disruptive behavior is often intentional, but sometimes the perpetrators are oblivious to the toll they take. Either way, these people usually don’t self-regulate. When a leader fails to confront an offensive employee, the rest of the staff are left to chart their own course with the situation. Some mimic the employee’s poor behavior to “fit in.” Others become defensive and hostile and retreat to operate in silos. Some remain quietly miserable, and their performance suffers accordingly. Often the best employees give up and quit. Once a leader tolerates one person’s poor behavior, it becomes almost impossible to slow the snowball effect of runaway toxic culture .
The Effect on Company Reputation
After a company’s culture begins to devolve, the atmosphere not only affects those who work there—it also impacts the people they serve. Workers operating in an unhealthy culture lose pride in their employer and the work they perform. As a result, service, quality, and professionalism suffer. Disgruntled, discouraged employees are not the ambassadors CEO want interacting with the public. Customers who interact with unhappy staff members or have poor experiences walk away with a diminished opinion about the company. Consequently, they’re likely to try a competitor the next time they need something rather than return to a business with a dysfunctional team.

How to Improve Workplace Behavior

Some employees may be oblivious to the effects of their poor behavior. A leader’s first step should be to have a straightforward discussion with the offender and then provide coaching to help them grow. But leaders must be prepared to hold the disruptive employee accountable for their reform. They can’t simply talk things over with them, then drop the issue and expect things to change. As David J. Friedman explains in Culture by Design: “We should be doing everything in our power to help people to succeed within our environment. But at some point, when we’ve been coaching long enough and not seeing the change we want, that staff member no longer gets to continue working with us.” Leaders who reach the end of their rope with a disruptive but high-achieving employee and fire them evoke what Friedman calls the “ultimate accountability.” When they get rid of a toxic staff member, he says, they send a loud, clear message to their organization about how serious they are about preserving a strong culture. Interestingly, leaders who reluctantly terminate a disruptive but high-achieving employee often find that their fears about losing their contributions never materialize. Instead, as Friedman points out, “Once the offender is gone, the team typically bands together and picks up the slack. As a result, the organization moves forward more successfully and smoothly than ever before.” Of course, chronic, poor behavior is far less likely to occur if leaders are clear and intentional about defining, shaping, and reinforcing the culture they want for their organization. To achieve this goal, they must articulate what they expect from employees and lead by example. Further, they must be willing to hold every staff member accountable for meeting their expectations. Friedman developed CultureWise to help leaders build a collaborative, high-performing company culture. Modeled on the innovative eight-step framework he outlined in Culture by Design, the CultureWise system provides organizations with the expertise and tools to maximize behaviors that mold unified teams. Explore the website and then book a complimentary consultation to learn more about how CultureWise can impact workplace behavior and strengthen company culture. And don’t miss the weekly edition of Culture Matters for insightful articles, videos, podcasts, and educational webinar opportunities—the subscription is free.
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