August 31, 2019

Are You Enabling A Toxic Culture?

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Everything seems to be going fine on your dairy. You’ve put in place a great team of middle managers who have met all key performance indicators for their respective areas of control. Life is good.

Until one day, you learn several employees under the direction of one of the managers is considering leaving the dairy. It seems that manager is extremely hostile to the people who report to him, making them feel worthless and ignorant. 
You quickly replace the manager with someone better, but it takes a while for you to regain the trust of those employees.

All through the experience you wonder, how did I let this happen?

A similar experience happened to Celia Swanson when she was the first female executive vice president at Walmart, Inc. She wrote about that experience in a Harvard Business Review article. Here are the strategies she developed to make sure it didn’t happen again.


There are two types of team members, Swanson says, passive enablers and active enablers.

“Passive enablers—which is what I was—are typically unaware of what’s happening. They often mean well but are blinded by “achievement mode” and are focused on driving results,” Swanson says. They don’t look far enough into situations and naively trust that their leaders are operating from the same value system and leadership style, she says. 

Active enablers, on the other hand, see what is happening but fail to take action. They can combat toxic behavior, Swanson says, because they are typically in the trenches of the problem and can best describe and document the situation. But they can be hesitant to speak up about what they are experiencing because they think they lack the status to bring a complaint forward or fear that there will be repercussions. 


Passive enablers need a strategy to examine a situation and act with urgency when problems arise, Swanson says. 

“The best way to do so is by being visible to their teams,” Swanson says. “Simple acts of scheduling ‘walking around’ time, dropping by to say hello or having one-on-one meetings gives you practical tactics for demonstrating trust while verifying the actions and results of the team.”

Active enablers, according to Swanson, need to recognize that choosing not to speak up is actually supporting the behavior. They must realize their obligation to a healthy and respectful workplace. 

“When leaders communicate clearly and actively demonstrate what will not be tolerated, employees understand that their concerns will be heard and taken seriously,” Swanson says.