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Thom Dennis

Serenity in Leadership Ltd


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The red flags of a toxic culture: Lessons from the Post Office and other scandals

The recent Post Office scandal in the UK serves as a poignant illustration that when there are significant culture and leadership issues in the workplace, there will be countless red flags and opportunities that are missed, but the truth is invariably known to someone.
Depicting Red flag of toxic culture

When there are significant transparency problems in the workplace, the truth is invariably known to someone. The recent Post Office scandal in the UK serves as a poignant illustration, as numerous high-ranking individuals were aware of the unfolding situation yet opted to collude, leading to the unjust prosecution of over 900 sub-postmasters on charges of theft, false accounting, and fraud.

Other examples – from Boeing to the tobacco industry

When a Boeing 737 Max recently lost its plug door mid-air, this was on the back of two crashes involving 346 fatalities in the last six years. These crashes primarily occurred because an automated system known as MCAS, designed to prevent the plane from stalling, appeared to malfunction, and Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) worked together to manipulate the recertification of the aircraft.

In 1954 the tobacco industry paid to publish the “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” in 448 US newspapers. It was the first step in a concerted, half-century-long campaign to mislead Americans about the catastrophic effects of smoking and to avoid public policy that might damage sales. 

When businesses as a whole cultivate a toxic culture of cover-ups or fail to learn from their mistakes, the real responsibility always lies with the top; one function of leadership is the culture you create. Can cover-ups and lying by Volkswagen officials – who intentionally programmed around half a million diesel vehicles with defeat devices to provide false readings during emissions testing – be viewed as mistakes? 

The red flags of a toxic culture

So what are the red flags of a toxic culture where individuals fail to take responsibility for mistakes and terrible decisions, and instead resort to concealment?

People believe what they want to believe rather than question it

The ostrich effect of not facing up to bad realities means sticking our heads in the sand. The BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill was made worse because on the rig they did not believe what the system was telling them, and the indicators were then misinterpreted.

By contrast at the start of the Post Office Scandal, people blindly believed in the system, not common sense or the mounting evidence in front of them. Why do we ignore the obvious? Because it is so tempting to believe what you want to believe, and as Upton Sinclair, the American novelist said: “It's very hard to get a man to believe if his job depends on not believing”. 

The moment you get into a punitive mindset you will prevent people from coming forward.

Tunnel vision is detrimental

I was once facilitating for the C-suite of a well-known organisation when one department head revealed that based on his research the chance of success of the project they were working on was 0%. Without hesitation, someone in the group ignored this intervention and carried on making their point.

I had to stop the meeting and remind everyone of what they had just heard but were choosing to ignore because somehow it was being seen as an inconvenient diversion.  

A fear culture is lose lose

 If the culture of the organisation makes you fear breaking the silence, getting in trouble and losing your job, then it is very difficult to be a whistleblower. So often they are considered a threat to the system.

I am often asked what is the best response to an employee making a mistake. Don’t shoot the messenger. Instead, and at the most basic level, thank them for coming forward, and ask them what needs to be done now and what can be learnt to prevent it from happening again. The moment you get into a punitive mindset you will prevent people from coming forward with the truth and this strangles the system. 

 In organisations that are entirely made up of like-minded people there is a real potential for a head-nodding agreement.

Without transparency, you can’t reduce the chance of things going wrong again

In one company that I worked with, the CEO hid the truth of the situation from their investors and they lost about £900 million. The investors weren’t innocent in this either because they knew things weren’t going well and appeared to choose to ignore the signals.

In industries where safety is paramount such as oil and gas or nuclear, there is no rank when it comes to whistleblowing. They have found that the way to improve safety is to make it safe for people to speak up when they see something that is wrong or unsafe. When you have systems that punish contraventions then what you tend to have is people hiding issues.  

Becoming entrenched with like-minded people

 In organisations that are entirely made up of like-minded people there is a real potential for a head-nodding agreement. This results in behaviours that will affect the business’ growth, innovation and culture, including:

  • Group-think mentality
  • Echo chambers where decisions are made without critical evaluation
  • Blind spots
  • Resistance to change
  • Limited problem-solving 

Being overworked and overloaded mean we are more likely to make mistakes

It then gets to a point when we are signed off and others have to pick up the pieces thereby adding to their workloads which breeds resentment. Burnout is avoidable and is a clear indicator of a poor culture.

Unyielding inflexibility is a large barrier to change

The mistakes of government and business delegations, as well as NGOs, who are standing idly and knowingly by as we comprehensively fail to limit the average global temperature increase will be nothing short of catastrophic. Neither goodwill nor good intentions will bring about the changes that are crucially needed via immediate action. 

Interested in this topic? Read 'Workplace gaslighting: Equip managers to address psychological manipulation'.

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