What can women do to turn around a toxic workplace situation? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
It's not on women to turn around toxic workplaces. Healthy culture requires a collective effort. That means it's everyone's responsibility, but setting a company's cultural tone falls especially to those who have power and influence within a given organization.
The challenge? Behavior can be hard to change, and it's tough to stop the spread of toxic work culture once it starts. So it's crucial to catch issues early, before they escalate or become ingrained. Another way of looking at it is that it's risky not to take proactive steps to prevent a toxic culture; the results can be everything from low morale and loss of productivity to retention problems and potential PR disasters (see also Uber).
To be clear, building an inclusive, respectful, supportive team takes time and effort, and everyone gets parts of it wrong. I've certainly made mistakes in this area. However, I've also found that when leadership is willing to acknowledge mistakes and correct them, there's a lot more employee trust and goodwill to work with.
Here are some helpful principles for fostering a healthy, robust workplace culture (or for turning around toxic culture once it takes hold):
Everyone's replaceable. Harsh but true. Executives need to make it clear from day one that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they're willing to fire top performers who act badly. Too many companies, especially in Silicon Valley, put up with inappropriate or outrageous conduct because someone is deemed too valuable to fire. That's a myth. If you're confident enough to fire a high-performer or senior-level person who's contributing to a toxic workplace culture, you'll show that no one gets a pass.
Witnesses are an untapped resource. At least 70% of workplace harassment and discrimination is never reported to HR. It turns out, however, that most incidents are witnessed--so inappropriate behavior at work is not actually happening in the dark.
Spot recently conducted a large international survey on witness reporting at work. While 77% of witnesses we surveyed did not report what happened to HR, the majority of them told someone else--friends and family members, but also people at their companies. This tendency to tell everyone except for leadership and HR can lead to a "social contagion" effect that infects company culture, continuing to spread unless something is done to rectify the situation.
In our survey, witnesses said that they'd be more likely to speak up about inappropriate behavior or unfair treatment if: 1) they could report anonymously, 2) they had choices about where to report, 3) employers actively encouraged them to report, 4) they had an automated reporting system, and 5) employers made it easier to find out how to report. So start with those and encourage a culture of speaking up.
Diversity is three-dimensional. One of the most dangerous things a company can do, if they care about creating a toxic workplace, is to hire a monolithic workforce. Homogeneous teams are more susceptible to groupthink and casual bias, behaviors that lead to stale ideas, widespread blind spots, and decisions made in an echo chamber. And when you do hire someone from outside the dominant culture, they're likely to have a bad time.
I think of diversity as three-dimensional: it's not exclusively about gender or race (though it certainly is about those things). It's also about ability, age, and parental status, to name just a few overlooked areas in which diversity is underrepresented in Silicon Valley startups. Hiring people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences can be a little more work upfront because you're often going outside your network. The variety of perspectives, however, results in problem-solving agility that often can't be matched by a team of people who are all exactly alike. And the data shows that diverse workforces outperform their monolithic competitors.
It's the (seemingly) little things. There are discrete, concrete actions that a team can do to make its culture welcoming to everyone. At Spot, we indicate our preferred pronouns in our Slack profiles and email footers. We also only rent office space that has gender-neutral bathroom facilities. These things seem small, but they're proactive steps towards a culture that anticipates diverse needs (and is therefore more attractive to underrepresented people).
Feedback matters. Giving feedback respectfully is an important skill for a team's collective satisfaction and productivity. And "respectful" is not a synonym for positive--it's just as crucial to give critical feedback well.
I find that feedback is most effective when it's clear, direct, and actionable. But giving feedback is complicated, and most of us either over-index on trying to be "nice" or let our frustration get the better of us. Are you being too demure and not saying what you really mean? Framing critiques in a passive-aggressive way? Is your feedback too vague or too high-level to give the recipient a sense of what they might do to improve? Have you kept the feedback specific--rather than letting it spiral out into a broader problem or litany of related complaints--and offered suggestions about what the person might try instead?
Growth mindsets build trust. Admitting that you don't have all the answers and that you're occasionally wrong is a great way to build trust within an organization (and to be a reasonably good human to work with). People often reflexively defend their own ideas, even when the evidence points in the other direction, because they don't want to be proven wrong. Don't be the colleague or manager who contorts themselves to defend the indefensible. Showing you're not wedded to your own ideas can help develop an open workplace culture where people are more willing to be vulnerable, take risks, and feel comfortable generating new ideas.
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