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Is Your Organization Toxic at the Top?

What’s Your Next Move?

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Your company just received abysmally low employee engagement scores on a recent survey. It may seem like an impossible mission to turn things around.  What options do you have?

Let’s look at this scenario from three archetypes:  1) the disgruntled employee; 2) the exhausted manager, stuck in the middle again; and 3) the CEO who feels unfairly criticized and misunderstood. What can each of these stakeholders do to move the needle into positive territory? It’s like a chess game…what move should each player make next?

The Disgruntled Employee: (The Pawn)

The strongest pawn structure is all pawns connected together.”

Congratulations – your voice has been heard at last!  Filling out an employee engagement survey anonymously provides an opportunity to look at what is most frustrating for you on the job and communicate your unfiltered opinion. Rather than assuming that nothing will change, consider how you can bring more hope to the situation. Own your role in the situation and be sure that you’re not contributing to the current picture negatively.

Focusing on your sphere of influence can help you feel more empowered at work. Concentrating all of your attention at the top where it’s hard to affect change can make the situation seem hopeless. But you don’t need to be a leader or manager to help make small changes that can shift the negative energy in the office. By concentrating on being a positive force with those you interact with every day, you not only spread hope and positivity to colleagues who need it, you take back some control in what may seem like an out of control situation.

Remember:  One of the best things about being a Pawn is that every move is forward.

The Exhausted Middle Manager (The Rook)

Rooks are usually not active in the opening and early middle game, but they are crucial endgame players.”

As a manager, you may feel like you have already worked hard with the team that reports to you.  Maybe you have already tried to share this feedback with the leadership team, only to be ignored or rebuffed. You’ve tried to advocate for changes, but the roadblocks above you seem insurmountable.

What is it that employees want from their managers when engagement is low? They want to hear that you care about the results and want to better understand their issues. To do this, it’s important to create a psychologically safe environment to discuss the survey results openly and honestly. It has to feel safe for people to speak up, or they won’t. And if they don’t speak up, employee engagement scores are not likely to improve. 

What does senior leadership need to hear from you now?  How can you become a crucial endgame player?  Do what you can with your own team to counter the negativity around you. Are people complaining they have no idea what’s happening at the top? Be radically transparent with your communication to your employees. Do people feel like they can’t trust the senior leadership team? Be consistently honest and trustworthy in all of your interactions with your team members. Are people not feeling valued? Think of ways you can recognize and celebrate your employees’ wins and personal milestones. Focus on creating an engaging, positive team environment regardless of what’s going on above or around you.

The Misunderstood CEO (The Queen)

“Even though a Queen is a lot stronger than the Rook (9 points vs. 5) the endgame Queen vs. Rook is not as easy to win as it seems.” 

Maybe you thought the CEO would be represented by the King in the game of chess.  Not so.  We think of the King as the “organization” and the Queen as being more representative of the CEO role, given the flexibility of movement afforded this position. 

What can the CEO do? Be curious.  Accept responsibility.  Listen and acknowledge the feedback. Commit to change – do what you can to deliver a message of hope, trust, compassion and stability–the four things that Gallup’s research says that followers want most from their leaders.  Engage internal and external stakeholders.  Fix the underlying business issues that are affecting the culture. Invest in the solutions. If specific “important” players in the chess game need to be retained but are creating toxicity in the environment, get them coached and hold them accountable. Co-create solutions with stakeholders. How clear is the big picture across the organization at all levels?  How can you create more transparency?  Consider shifting from being the one with all the questions, not all the answers.

Change is hard and making the impact you desire won’t be easy.  Expect that and keep moving on.  You may have to make several complex moves before the symptoms that led to the negative employee feedback lead to the type of culture you’ll be proud to leave as your legacy.

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