Why being honest is the key to avoiding a toxic work culture

Toxic workplace
Toxic workplace

All is not well in the workplace. It feels like every week a new survey is released to back it up and the statistics are, quite frankly, alarming. In an attempt to prevent a “lost generation” of young employees, the Resolution Foundation think tank, funded by charity The Health Foundation, has now called for cross-party government action. This latest intervention comes after a report found that record numbers of young people are out of work because of poor mental health.

Yet it’s not just 20-somethings dealing with a toxic work culture that is causing concern. In a recent survey, 61 per cent of UK employees said they left a job or planned to leave in the next 12 months because of poor mental health. Another survey showed that 28 per cent of UK sick days are due to employee mental health. Costing the UK a staggering £56 billion every year, it is a lose-lose situation for employers and employees alike.

So what’s going on? “We have a hidden, systematic skills gap in our organisations – the inability to share and hear the truth,” says Sue Ingram, a communications consultant and HR professional. “The lack of considered objective feedback is ruining people’s lives every day in our workplaces.

“The younger generation want the truth, they want integrity, they want to believe in something that is true and fair. But they are going into work places where the reality and the ‘vision statement’ do not align and this leads to confusion and causes a toxic atmosphere.”

Ingram wasn’t always so honest and that’s why she’s passionate about truth telling. When she was invited by filmmaker Joe Bloom to take part in an art projectA View on a Bridge’ (where strangers on a bridge pick up a phone and share their view with the world) her Instagram post went viral. In it, she admits not telling the truth to an employee at work early in her HR career.

“I talked about starting my career in HR and how much I regretted failing to tell a man honestly what was holding him back. The truth was he thought he was being passionate at work, but he simply came across as angry.

“When I eventually gave him feedback, he got it straight away, but he challenged me. ‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ It was the turning point in my whole career when I decided to do everything I could to encourage truth-telling at work.” In two weeks, the clip was viewed more than 11.2 million times, and received more than 600,000 likes, showing how much the experience Ingram describes resonates. So what does she think needs to change in the workplace? Here are her top tips.

Communication and constructive feedback should be a priority

“I think the clip went viral because so many of us can relate to that feeling of working hard, putting the effort in but not getting ahead. We all have blind spots and unless we get constructive feedback, we’ll never be able to grow and improve our performance or career prospects.”

We’re not taught the skill of communicating well and truthfully, she says. “It’s the age-old mistake – that we promote people who are good at their jobs but have never been taught how to give feedback.

“When we don’t learn this skill, avoid telling the truth and can’t give constructive feedback, it creates an environment of distrust and that has devastating consequences not only on people’s wellbeing but also on the company’s bottom line.”

Sue Ingram
Sue Ingram: 'I think the clip went viral because so many of us can relate to that feeling of working hard, putting the effort in but not getting ahead' - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Truth-telling is not only good for employees, it is good for business too. Recent research by Gallup shows employees working within a culture of trust have 106 per cent more energy at work with 13 per cent less sick days. The research also showed that companies with high trust levels outperformed companies with low trust levels by a staggering 186 per cent.

However, it is not about one individual suddenly starting to be radically honest with their boss and colleagues, says Ingram. “This will more than likely just get you sacked. It’s more about creating a culture at work where giving honest feedback and questioning not just colleagues but the management is actively encouraged,” she adds.

She defines a truth-telling culture as the freedom of being able to say what’s on your mind – your concerns and worries – without any fear of reprisal or attack. She says you know you have a healthy culture if a junior person in the company can tell a senior member of the company when something has a flaw or is not working effectively.

However, when people are afraid to tell the truth, it creates an environment of distrust. Distrust not only creates an unhappy, unhealthy workforce but also “low productivity and burnout”, she says, adding: “Burnt-out workers are less productive and more likely to resign, which increases turnover and recruitment costs.” A YouGov poll in January for Mental Health UK reveals that one in five workers are now at risk of burnout.

Sticking plaster initiatives are not the answer

Often companies will deal with the symptoms of struggling employees by launching a “wellbeing week” when most of the staff are stressed to the max working crazy long hours because a project has not been set up in a sustainable way, says Ingram. “When management is not open to hearing feedback, then wellbeing programmes can feel like a sticking plaster because real problems and challenges within the business are not being addressed,” says Ingram.

“You can’t fix what can’t be named. Truth will out in the end and if you don’t encourage an environment of truth and trust, then the boss will only get told about problems when it’s in crisis mode, you won’t be able to deliver the project and everyone loses. I once consulted in an engineering company where there was a very macho culture. The boss would stand at the top of the boardroom and bang the table and say ‘we’re delivering on September 20 – aren’t we?’

“I was coaching one of the engineers who didn’t speak up in meetings because he didn’t want to be the one being negative about the problems that he knew would halt the project. The macho boss found out two weeks before that the project would not be delivered to deadline.

“It was a disaster – all because of this very ra-ra-ra culture that didn’t encourage intelligent feedback. If you communicate truthfully, flag up problems early on, create a sustainable plan with accountability for all concerned, you create an environment of trust and transparency and everyone wins. But the chief executive probably hadn’t been coached on his communication style. It’s a systemic skills gap throughout the UK work culture.”

Develop adult-to-adult interactions – not a demanding ‘parent’ to fearful ‘child’ dynamic

We all know that telling the truth at work isn’t easy. Speaking out (and/or staying silent) affects our relationships, professional standing, and potentially our finances. So where could you start? Leaders should start to ask themselves is the truth being told to me? Is the truth being told within my organisational culture?

For managers, truth telling is a skill that can be learned, says Ingram. Avoid absolutes like “you always” and “you never”, she says. “Give feedback on behaviours and habits versus personality and keep it specific.

“For example, ‘I noticed in the morning meeting, you have a tendency to/are in the habit of x/y/z’. Be clear about the behaviour you want to see change. Lead with curiosity and proactive questions: ‘What will get in the way? How can I help you do this? Do you have the resources you need?’

“Work on adult-to-adult interactions versus a demanding ‘parent’ to fearful ‘child’ dynamic. If a project is not going to plan, be sure to manage your reactions, and your own anxiety and disappointment. If people are afraid of telling you the truth because of your outbursts of anger – then the company has a problem.”

“If you’re giving feedback to your boss, build trust and rapport by standing in their shoes, says Ingram. “Understand what is keeping your boss up at night – acknowledge what they have been given to deliver on by their board or shareholders: ‘I know you want to achieve this. I have some feedback here that I think will help you achieve that.’” Be an ally, Ingram recommends. Check your attitude – move out of victimhood, take responsibility for your own actions and be a proactive, positive member of the team, she advises.

But what if the boss or the senior management just won’t listen?

“A fish rots from the head down,” adds Ingram. “Everyone looks to the boss to model good behaviour and set the tone of the culture. And if the management isn’t walking the talk and they won’t listen to constructive feedback and you distrust them, maybe it’s time to face the truth – and find another job.”


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