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3 leadership behaviours that drive toxic organisational cultures

Leadership teams are essential to the success of any organisation. When they synchronise their efforts into cohesive powerhouses, they excel — but at their worst, they set an example for others to follow.

A healthy organisational culture does not happen overnight—it’s a constant work in progress. Given the clear correlation between performance and health, and how quickly dysfunctional behaviours can take root in even the best organisations, it’s more important than ever for senior leadership to be vigilant and proactive culture-builders.

Leaders need to clearly understand the elements that make a culture toxic and prioritise correcting those negative aspects. By identifying what employees dislike about the corporate culture, leaders can focus their efforts on addressing these issues, as well as communicate in a way that improves employee engagement.

1. Poor communication

Organisational silos are usually formed when employees are cut off from each other due to a lack of communication where silo walls reinforce an “us versus them” mentality. To break down the silos and facilitate cross-functional collaboration, leaders need to employ intentional meetings and management systems that proactively address company culture, helping employees see across the organisation so they better understand how their role and function support the collective mission. Successful leaders go beyond delegating work and communicating how to do tasks. They show humanity and a genuine interest in the people they work with, which in return can go a long way toward fostering successful communication in the workplace.

2. Unnecessary conflict

Conflict is inevitable. But when conflict and information are mishandled among a leadership team, the rest of the organisation follows suit. When leaders stay at arm’s length from conflict, they can never be truly honest with each other. They communicate by talking around the real issues instead of directly addressing them, which prevents them from learning what people really think. It also perpetuates a culture of competition and discourages risk-taking because people do not know whether their opinion will be accepted as constructive feedback or met with silence or hostility.

Leadership teams should have norms that they won’t engage in behaviours that harm relationships or hurt performance, like speaking negatively behind one another’s backs, withholding honest perspectives, or pocket vetoing decisions after they are made. Leadership teams can take steps to improve the quality of their relationships by sharing their expectations openly with the team members and asking them to hold them accountable if they do engage in any of those behaviours.

3. Fear of failure

If we are not prepared to fail, we are not prepared to learn. However, it is important to distinguish between acceptable risks and avoidable mistakes. The former are a normal part of work and life; the latter are not. But many people feel like they have no control over this decision—and that’s a problem. Research shows that fear can cause people to freeze, which has profound negative effects on productivity, creativity, innovation and satisfaction at work.

Reward and reinforce new ideas and outside-the-box thinking by fostering an organisational culture that tolerates risk, embraces failure and empowers employees to challenge the status quo. Look for appropriate and helpful ways to pilot new ideas within the organisation, be transparent about the motivation and key learnings that these risks provide.

At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering training and development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops, and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at


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