Some years ago I was working with a coaching client who had won an international prize for sales excellence in the large pharmaceutical company that employed her. She was young, idealistic, impressionable, and sincerely devoted to her work. We’ll call her Jane.
Things changed for Jane very suddenly.
Achieving peak excellence opened new doors, including an invitation to a private audience with the global CEO. Until that time Jane had been Dorothy to his Wizard of Oz – he the mysterious figure behind the curtain, and she looking up to this heroic, mystical, never-seen figure. Then the curtain parted.
The strategic and operational information she learned at that meeting shocked and sickened her so profoundly that she quit within two weeks, at the peak of her career.
Jane was a well-intentioned person. Her role was filled by the next in line — someone for whom that strategic and operational information sat more comfortably. With her departure, organisational evil had concentrated a little.
Here’s another example:
Shortly after Donald Trump took office some worthy public servants quit. A few left like smart rats scurrying at the first sign of water in the hull; others in a grand gesture of moral protest. Right there, the process of the concentration of evil began.
I use “evil” loosely here, as a label for the continuum that begins with unhealthy, progresses through damaging, and only hits true evil at its extremes.
I’m talking about behaviour that harms others, like corruption, greed, misogyny, bullying and environmental insouciance.
What you are going to learn below is how microcultures form, how they go off the rails, and what to do about it. The core premise is this:
Natural human dynamics cause the culture of a business or political organisation to become more evil over time, unless specific actions are taken to prevent it.
How evil happens
There are two conditions required for evil to take hold:
- Avoidance by non-evil leaders of the uncomfortable task of re-directing people who do not embrace constructive values, either into low impact roles or out of the organisation.
- Departure of non-evil staff. This happens organically across time, at an exponential rate proportionate to the increasing concentration of evil.
I have seen organisations dramatically underperform because of a CEO’s avoidance of the need to remove one highly destructive person in a key role. A long string of half-hearted efforts to bring good people in to work over or around this person had failed in the same way each time.
I have also seen businesses suffering deeply because the leader was the one with the destructive behaviour. The only staff who remained were so demoralised that they had lost any sense of their own power to pursue other options — like abused animals so used to being in cages that they didn’t run even when the doors were flung open.
If unsavoury elements in an institution are ignored, your best people will leave in pursuit of a nicer life.
As those staff are replaced, every now and again a new recruit will find themselves right at home in this unsavoury environment, due to shared values. So they stay, and evil concentrates.
Eventually, after many rounds of this, no reasonable person will be able to tolerate the environment. The culture has become a caricature of itself, and it’s intense.
For example, Mia Freedman, founder of Mamamia and a capable and dynamic executive, described her brief experience with Australian broadcaster Channel Nine as “a culture so toxic and so bad for women that it was the most distressing career experience of my life”. [Channel Nine Boys’ Club. Mamamia.]
The culture at Channel Nine had come to my professional attention some years earlier. It seemed that little had changed, except for a worsening. Evil had been concentrating.
An ethical and informed person would require heroic resilience to take on a role at Monsanto these days, a poster child for corporate evil. The concentration of poor ethics and denial appears overwhelming. [Monsanto Faces Blowback Over Cancer Cover-Up. Der Spiegel.]
How to change an unhealthy culture
Changing a negative culture in a team or business, before it’s too far gone, is actually a relatively straightforward task. It has two steps:
- Identify the small number of people causing most of the damage to morale or productivity. Coach them into roles that suit them better, or offer them exit packages, or in rare cases of overtly unacceptable conduct just remove them.
- Recruit a few very smart, energetic, pleasant people into key roles, to add critical mass in the opposite, constructive direction.
Although it’s a popular alternative strategy, team and organisational cultures rarely change by coaching a few badly behaved adults to behave better. Whilst this can work — I have had some memorable successes coaching lynchpin individuals — this approach requires patience with human nature and willingness to embrace the uncertainty of the outcome.
Messier at first, but usually better for all concerned, is cultural transformation achieved by thoughtfully redeploying or moving on the very small number of staff who drive the negative energy, and replacing them with highly competent contributors whose personalities epitomise the culture you want to create.
Enough of the right people in key roles will, all by themselves, build 90% of the culture you aspire to for your team — and with surprising speed.
The result of facilitating this process for a CEO client of mine was described to me as “a breath of fresh air“. The work environment felt so transformed, so quickly, that he said walking into the office in the morning was “like coming to work at a different business“.
Actually, there is a third step. We did something very important before any of this — workshopped the culture the CEO wanted to create, including the behaviours and skills that would drive it. It’s important to take time to carefully articulate the culture you want.
After that it’s all about achieving a critical mass of the right people who will create that culture. Recruit enough proactive, friendly, enthusiastic people, and your culture will become proactive, friendly and enthusiastic. It’s not rocket science.
Often this is easier than trying to change the entrenched damaging behaviour of adults you have already employed. But a warning:
Employ too few of the ‘new culture’ staff, below the critical mass required for their energy to dominate, and the intervention will fail.
If the environment is still dominated by a weight of old negative energy, it will just make your new staff uncomfortable. They will falter or leave, rather than transform your business.
But done right, cultural transformation by critical mass works in any business, team or group.
To do it right requires guts, because it can’t be a slow process. It needs a lot of careful groundwork and planning, followed by quick and constructive execution across no more than a few months.
Evil rises to the top, like fat on milk
If you don’t manage your team or institution in this way, the unsavoury elements will work their way up the hierarchy.
As soon as one of them lands in the boss’s chair the culture is doomed, because there is no stronger driver of culture than the leader of an organisation. They will recruit in alignment with their values, and reward and punish in alignment with their values.
Good people who push back on bad behaviour by the executive will find themselves unrewarded, then sidelined, then unemployed. They will be replaced by someone who will play ball, and evil will concentrate.
The problem is that once a negative culture has taken shape, great inertia is created by the critical mass of people behaving badly. By the time evil has concentrated to this degree, it’s nigh impossible for a good-natured outlier to survive in that environment, let alone have a measurable positive impact.
So they leave, or get booted, and evil concentrates a little more.
The remedy for concentrated evil
The cure for over-concentration is effective dilution.
If your drink is much too sweet, how effective is it to add an extra 1cm of water on top? No detectable difference, right? So instead you pour out the top third and fill it with fresh water. Now we’re talking.
Remove. Replace. Adjust the critical mass.
Which brings me back, sadly, to Donald Trump.
The current US political situation is the most disturbing case study of the process of concentrating evil that I have witnessed.
US Government staff have been quitting en masse, and have been kicked out at an incredible rate. First, some good people left. Others stayed to get the job done, but then some of those got booted. Seeing this unfolding madness, more good staff have been leaving.
Who will this leave in place?
Alternatives are being brought in to join the few who remain. The ranks are filling with those who are weak or willing to comply with unethical requests, or who are too thrilled to turn down opportunities that their inadequate skillsets would never ordinarily afford them.
But the most significant problem is that good people are becoming very thin on the ground. Their critical mass is dangerously dwindling. This means the scale could tip any day, if it hasn’t already.
Evil, eventually, will prevail — unless enough good people do something.