Why Confronting the Elephant in the Room is Key to Fixing Company Culture

The hardest part about culture change is confronting the elephant in the room. Often, when survey results show a negative culture, leaders fear sharing the results with their team in order to develop a plan of action. But, transparency is the only way forward, and acknowledging the problems is the necessary first step towards remedying them. 

Not too long ago, I was working with a new client and had just finished a culture survey. The results were not great. My relationship had primarily been with the COO, and she was the one driving the culture and diversity work in the organization. In the midst of our work, she decided to step back and repriortize her family life, so I quickly had to build a relationship with the CEO and deliver the results of the feedback.

The CEO had been skeptical about doing the survey and getting feedback in the first place, but with the COO’s help we had persuaded him to move forward. Now I was left with advising him on my own with no additional internal support. 

As I noted, the results weren’t great – in fact they were awful. Some of what we heard:

  • Women felt marginalized, and if they were caregivers, felt an additional strain of not being able to communicate their needs openly
  • People of color felt that they had no voice, and in some parts of the organization were cast aside
  • Younger workers, particularly women felt objectified and suffered microaggressions repeatedly
  • Members of the LGBTQ+ community felt that they had to hold back their identities
  • There was a senior executive that had a reputation of harassing and bullying behaviors and people were too afraid to say something about it. His group had high turnover and complaints that had been brushed aside

The CEO understood that he needed to do something, as it would make no sense to conduct this kind of research without implementing a plan of action but what he wanted to share was essentially sugar-coating the truth. We always encourage full transparency, which isn’t always easy.

The challenge here was that the CEO didn’t really know me, didn’t fully trust the process, and was struggling with the idea of sharing the “dirty laundry”. There was an added layer of complexity given that the senior executive being accused of egregious behavior was the CEO’s friend of many years. He started to back track on sharing the results, saying he didn’t feel like he didn’t have enough “proof” to deal with the executive. He started to question the data and to waffle on whether this was a good idea. All reactions I have handled before, and ones I have been able to navigate successfully. This was a bit different – partly because of his initial resistance and partly because it was apparent he didn’t have full trust in me, my team and the work. 

My initial attempts to get through to him were with logic, to no avail. I finally realized that I had to share a deeply personal story of my own experience working in a toxic culture. I had not shared this story with many people, let alone a client, but I realized that it was the only way to help him understand the consequences that a toxic culture has on the people subjected to it, as well as the organization on the whole.

I told the client that I wanted to share a story about why this work was so personal to me and as his advisor why I felt he needed to know the importance of acting on the feedback.

I told him about a senior executive who was intent on making my life miserable when I was in a corporate HR role. At first, he would try to “nicely” manipulate me to do what he wanted and would support me in public but undermine me later behind closed doors. Soon, he escalated to bullying, regularly yelling and cursing at me in front of everyone, while onlookers didn’t do anything for fear of their jobs. 

During the months this was happening I began to unravel. I became suspicious of my colleagues, high-strung even out of the office, and unable to sleep. I was having angry dreams and yelling, waking myself and my husband up in the middle of the night. The final straw came when my kids told me that when I was working I was always angry and they were happy to see me happy [during the winter holidays]. It was all impacting my ability to do the work I was hired to do. It was the biggest professional challenge I had faced.  

Since I was a senior leader, the only person I could report to was my boss – the CEO. His reaction was to make me feel like it was all my fault, and to consider whether I was making things up. Everything I had been doing to build an inclusive culture at the organization was being directly undermined. Here I was a leader in the organization and I was feeling marginalized, my voice was being ignored, I was feeling less-than, and I was questioning my ability to do my work.

All the talk about hiring me to build culture and take the organization to the next level felt like a bunch of window-dressing. 

I told the client how devastated I was by the reaction of my boss. I also shared with the client that the employee survey results, similar to this client, were poor – and they were brushed aside and were never properly shared. The CEO and some members of the leadership team didn’t want to “demoralize” people, they wanted to focus on the good things, they were worried that if they shared the feedback that people would leave, or their worst fear: file a legal complaint. When I left, my team was not surprised – because they had seen the toxicity firsthand. They all left one by one as soon as they could. 

I could see that my story had struck the chord I had hoped it would and that my client saw the similarities. And, I could see that he could tell I was still visibly upset by everything that had happened – even though it was years ago. I was then able to say what I had said before, only to be heard this time:

  • Your employees filled out the survey – they know what they said, and they are living this toxic culture every day
  • If you don’t tell them you heard them, that you are distraught by this, and that you will do something about it – you too will not only experience turnover but it will catch up with you and one or more employees will file a lawsuit
  • By sharing the data in a transparent way – not every gory detail – but certainly the highs and lows – and sharing some of the words/phrases people used, it will get the team to trust that change is a priority
  • Take accountability for the culture and what you – the CEO – will personally do. In particular, you can’t keep your friend in his position of power – he is undermining the aspirational culture
  • Engage the staff in helping to problem solve

He looked up at me and said – “I get it.  This is hard, I’m not exactly the world’s best communicator on things like this. I need your help.” 

The Silverene Group is proud to be a 100% minority, woman owned business.