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14 Min Read

5 Leadership Lessons To Prevent A Toxic Culture of Harassment

David Mizne
David Mizne

I’ve been trying to stay out of the conversation regarding sexual harassment in the workplace and beyond, mainly because I think that putting attention on toxic behavior only serves to amplify it. I also don’t have any direct solutions, since it appears that harassment persists despite company policies and procedures to eradicate that behavior.

But after reading the recent news of several prominent male VCs sexually harassing female founders, I decided to write this post. My hope is that those who read this will implement the lessons I offer, in an effort to create healthier and safer workplace cultures.

While women have certainly made enormous strides towards being treated equally over the last half century, there is still work to be done. In general, women are treated very differently in the business world. Period. This can express itself as harassment (1 in 3 women are sexually harassed). It also takes the form of women being treated unfairly in terms of pay and promotion (women earn 80% of what men earn on average).

I don’t feel qualified to address the greater problem of the mistreatment of women by men, or the social and psychological foundations of that behavior. Attempting to tackle the ubiquitous global issues of sexism, gender bias, and violence towards women feels overwhelming. Instead, I will discuss some of the key leverage points that all business leaders can focus on in order to create a culture of dignity and respect where everyone feels safe.

Putting People First

The antidote to toxic culture, whether that’s excessive competition, harassment, or discrimination, is realizing that employees are people and acting accordingly. This may fly in the face of outdated concepts like command and control leadership, but that’s the point. Let’s shatter that paradigm along with the objectification of women.

Leaders at every company must realize that taking care of employees is not a nice to have or secondary to business goals, it’s the path towards those goals. But alas, the majority of the business world still sees people as expendable assets whose well-being is secondary to growth and profits. Here are some ways to change that:

1) Develop Values 

Companies are not going to explicitly set a value called, Stop Harassing People. Though I hope they’ll have a policy in place that covers that.

Here’s one that has worked for us, Grant Trust & Be Transparent: We believe that relationships are strongest and teams thrive in a culture of transparency, vulnerability and authenticity. 

In the January/February 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review, Paul J. Zak wrote an article entitled, The Neuroscience of Trust. Zak measured the neural activity of people as they worked and based on that research, he offers eight ways that leaders can create and maintain a culture of trust. A few stand outs are; employee recognition, autonomy, sharing information, and being vulnerable. 

Zak’s research proved that a chemical we produce called oxytocin reduces the fear of trusting a stranger. Oxytocin increases a person’s empathy, but is also inhibited by excessive stress. Leaders who create high stress environments are removing trust from them. When that happens, toxicity manifests as gossip, negative attitudes, and opens the door for unwanted physical advances. 

2) Create a Culture of Feedback

When managers grant employees trust, they are creating a culture where it’s safe to speak up. In the context of harassment, a culture of feedback takes conversations out of dark corners and bring them out into the open where they can be addressed. Ask questions frequently and provide an avenue for people to communicate their concerns. When people communicate openly, inappropriate behavior can be illuminated and eradicated. 

Looking to create a culture of feedback and open communication at your organization? Try 15Five

3) Lead with Courage

When someone comes to a leader with a concern, their job is to listen and take action in order to defend the tribe. Some companies seek to protect their managers engaging in harassment with excuses. These leaders may think that they are protecting the tribe by defending those people who contributed to the growth of the business, but that is seriously misguided. Protecting the tribe begins at the most basic level of personal safety. 

4) Build Connections

Despite HR guidelines and accepted norms about what is appropriate, employees are people. People have emotions like love, lust, arrogance, pride, insecurity, and fear.  We have to stop pretending that people check their humanity at the office door. That doesn’t mean everything should be discussed in detail between managers and employees. Some topics are unprofessional. When managers and employees work closely together, know each other, and build relationships, problems don’t stay hidden.

In healthy cultures, managers can tell when something is wrong and they want to know about it. Perhaps work product is suffering, or they can detect a difference in attitude during a one one one meeting. That can lead to a simple question like, is everything ok? The manager should not take on the role of therapist, but they should find away to support the person who is suffering.

5) Provide Guidance

Most managers are promoted because career advancement is used as a reward for performance. But people management is not easy. It requires a particular set of skills, talents and attributes like empathy and active listening. Managers must have a mindset and skill set to bring out the best in others.

In cut-throat workplaces, the opposite is true. Those teams are not groups of people to guide forward on their personal and professional journeys, they are resources to support the continued unchecked ambition of the person leading them. Therein lies the danger, because if someone is just a pawn in another’s game, what’s to prevent abuse from taking place?

There’s another lesson here for upper management, which is not to promote people because they performed well at the expense of those around them. Leadership is about listening, caring, and acting with integrity and honor. It’s about guiding people to contribute something of exceptional value and becoming their best selves in the process.

The New Business Paradigm

Critics of people-centered management styles often assume that supportive management means not holding people accountable. That’s not the case at all. In fact, coddling inhibits trust.

According to Paul Zak’s research, assigning a challenging task is important for building team cohesion and trust. Moderate stress release the neurochemicals oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, which increase focus and strengthen social connections. Zak also offers that this only works when managers, “check in frequently to assess progress and adjust goals that are too easy or out of reach”.

We believe that business is about more than making money and providing valuable goods and services (although that’s important too). We spend the majority of our waking hours contributing our talents and skills at work. We’ve written plenty about how that experience can impact and inform all other aspects of a person’s life. Do employees feel empowered and fulfilled when surrounded by creative high energy people? Or do they feel like their leaders are their enemies, and their colleagues are the people standing in the way of their success? 

Business leaders have duties to provide different things for different groups; positive financial outcomes for investors and delightful product and service experiences for customers. But a company’s primary goal is to provide their employees with an environment that is safe, fun, challenging, equitable, honest, candid, and founded on the fundamental principles of human decency. All success is derived therefrom.

David Mizne

David Mizne is Marketing Communications Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. David’s articles have appeared on The Next Web & TalentCulture. Follow him @davidmizne.

Image Credit: Milada Vigerova