Toxic Workplaces

If your workplace is toxic, can you change it? In this episode of HBR’s advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Nicholas Pearce, an associate professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. They talk through how to transform a toxic culture, whether you’re a junior employee, a manager, or in charge.

Listen to more episodes and find out how to subscribe on the Dear HBR: page. Send in your questions about workplace dilemmas by emailing Dan and Alison at

From Alison and Dan’s reading list for this episode:

HBR: Recognizing Employees Is the Simplest Way to Improve Morale by David Novak — “One question I loved to ask is, ‘What would you do if you had my job?’ Maybe the response will be a useful suggestion, in which case you should acknowledge it and implement it if possible, to prove that these conversations aren’t just for show. Even if you don’t get any great ideas, such discussions can still have a huge impact, as long as your staff sees that you really thought about their suggestions.”

HBR: Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate by Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule — “The dominant culture and structure of today’s organizations are perfectly designed to produce their current behaviors and outcomes, regardless of whether those outcomes are the ones you want. If your hope is for individuals to act differently, it helps to change their surrounding conditions to be more supportive of the new behaviors, particularly when they are antithetical to the dominant culture.”

HBR: Manage Your Emotional Culture by Sigal Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill — “In our interviews with executives and employees, some people have told us that their organizations lack emotion altogether. But every organization has an emotional culture, even if it’s one of suppression. By not only allowing emotions into the workplace, but also understanding and consciously shaping them, leaders can better motivate their employees.”

HBR: The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture by Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng — “Much like defining a new strategy, creating a new culture should begin with an analysis of the current one, using a framework that can be openly discussed throughout the organization. Leaders must understand what outcomes the culture produces and how it does or doesn’t align with current and anticipated market and business conditions.”

DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.

ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. The truth is that we don’t have to let the tension, conflicts and misunderstandings get us down. We can do something about them.

DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions about workplace dilemmas and with the help of experts and insights from academic research, we help you move forward.

ALISON BEARD: Today we’re talking about toxic cultures with Nicholas Pearce. He’s an Associate Professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Nicolas, thank you so much for joining us.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: Thank you. Glad to be with you.

DAN MCGINN: Now, Nicholas, we’re excited to have you here today because I guess you went the traditional engineer to divinity school to leadership PhD track. Like everyone does.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: That’s exactly right.

DAN MCGINN: Tell us about that.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: I have the opportunity as a Pastor and Professor to serve both CEO’s and those who want to be CEO’s, and people who are trying to get jobs in the CEO’s companies. Or, I have people who are well below the poverty line and people who are flying well, well above it.

ALISON BEARD: And in your executive coaching practice and in your church, do people complain quite a bit about bad workplace cultures that they’re struggling with?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: A lot of people don’t have the vocabulary to use, to point out that it is culture. They point to people who are stressed, or people who are leaving the organization, or people who are gossiping a lot, or people who are just not nice and so, for a lot of them they’re not able to point to it as culture. They’re just able to point to it as I don’t like going to work. And so, that kind of report is unfortunately, it’s quite common.

ALISON BEARD: Well, hopefully we can give some good advice to our letter writers. Dan, do you want to kick it off?

DAN MCGINN: I will. Dear HBR: my new job is toxic. I’m compensated well, but is it worth it? I’m a male operations supervisor, managing 70 people on an overnight shift. My crew works hard. Most of them make minimum wage. It’s more laborious than you’d expect. They lift 50 pounds or more, hundreds of times a day. That’s 22 kilograms for you metric people. I walk at least 10 kilometers a day and I know some on my crew do even more. I feel for them. They’re almost all first-generation immigrants. I have a woman who collects cans on her lunch break, a guy who sleeps in his car and several young men working 60 hours a week. They have families and they need the overtime. I went to so called employee relations training, but it should have been called union busting. I’ve never seen somewhere so openly anti-union. My boss sits at his desk and watches the screens. Recently my boss told me I’m not seeming on the team, that I’m just punching the clock. When I started he told me, I’d be scheduled to start at 6 a.m. I’d come in at 3:30 a.m. to see the opening shift. You’re not being proactive or taking initiative. So, now I’ve been showing up more than three hours early. I wasn’t going to drink this Kool-Aid. My question: why is this place like this? My boss has been here only a year and is clearly gunning for more. Other managers seem broken though. One says this is destroying his marriage. I’m going to be fine. I can get another job, but man, this is sad. It’s breaking people. What can I do other than get out?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: Unfortunately, it sounds like not only does he have a bad boss, but his boss is operating in a bad system. And so, when it comes to workplace culture, the temptation is to address individual people, but individual people are not the problem. It tends to be the mindset that is prevalent in the entire organization.

DAN MCGINN: That’s a great observation and one of the questions we ask is, well if you simply took the boss out of the equation, would the problem go away? And in this situation, I think the answer is very clearly no.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: I think that’s right.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So, then the question is, is someone in his position, who’s a middle manager, really, able to fix the situation? And he is great because he’s thinking, how can I help these people because I really care for my employees? So, Nicholas you talked about the fact that you counsel people at the top and you counsel people at the bottom. For this man in the middle, what would you tell him to do?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: I always advise folks to recognize that culture change is not a bottom up or a middle out type of change phenomenon. Culture change has to be top down because the C-Suite and namely the CEO, or executive director, the number one person in the house, they set the tone. They create the environment. So, for anyone who is not the CEO to endeavor to change culture, it is a brave, high-risk endeavor. And so, you best be sure that this is something that not only you think is a good idea but is a mountain you’re willing to die on. Because it could very well cost you your organizational life.

ALISON BEARD: Is there a way to do it though in a less combative way? We published a great piece by Bryan Walker of IDEO and Sarah Soule of Stanford talking about movements. And they basically analyzed all the literature on how movements start and those definitely start from the bottom right?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: So, a lot of social movements that start from without the organization, in other words on the outside, people are able to agitate and yes, there’s some risk to it because there’s going to be some politics that they run into, but they can keep on living. For someone who’s on the inside to try to uproot the system that everyone is abiding by, living with, whether they’re thriving or not, it’s a system that they are complicit in maintaining. And so, that is always a high-risk endeavor.

DAN MCGINN: But when I look at this problem, I start to try to take it apart and divide it into the things that this letter writer can fix versus the things that he can’t. So, there’s not a lot he’s going to be able to do about the fact that they’re working in the middle of the night. There’s not a lot he’s going to be able to do about the fact that they’re paid minimum wage. That’s kind of the economics of this industry. I can see things that he could do to maybe reduce the walking. There’s actually research we’ve published on how to figure out ways to make people walk less in warehouses. The lifting, there might be some automation or some mechanized solutions that would reduce the toll of lifting those 50-pound weights. How much do you think this could fix versus sort of the big cultural issues?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: I think he’s got to ask his people what are their pain points? Because for him to assume that he knows what the pain points are, he puts himself at risk because even if they don’t like the way things are, they’ve grown accustomed to them and they figured out how to make it work, even if they complain about it all day. So, if you’re talking about introducing automation to take some of the lifting or some of the walking out, that may sound great on the surface, but their wondering well, if they can do this to lighten my load, how easy will it be for them to eliminate my load, i.e., eliminate me. So, some of them may very well not like what they’re doing, but too much automation could put them psychologically or materially at a risk of losing their jobs.

DAN MCGINN: That’s a great point especially for this kind of setting, these warehouses where it’s not really a question of whether they’re going to be automated, it’s a question of when and how much. There is a silver lining here that as much pain as this guy feels looking at the lives of the people he has to manage, the good news is they still have jobs. And he might be able to kind of reframe the problem and look at it as a glass half full as opposed to half empty.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, David Novak the [former] Executive Chairman of Yum! Brands, wrote a great piece for us basically talking about how important simple recognition is to improving morale at an organization and he recommends just a few things. Share as much information as possible, even simple things like a kudos or congratulations board, or thank you notes. And just trying to instill sort of appreciation and fun into the workplace. And I know that seems really difficult given the conditions in this workplace, but I do think just even tiny, tiny small wins could make a difference here.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: I agree. A lot of managers mistakenly assume that in blue collar, kind of industrial settings that people don’t care about meaning. That they are just moving from point A to point B. They’re making their widgets mindlessly and the reality is these are human beings. These are people too that have dreams and hopes and values, and so for the management to appreciate that and to respect that and say, the reason why we’re asking you to do X, Y and Z is because. That infuses meaning and respectability into their work. That it sounds like is woefully missing.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I approached this problem sort of a, he needs to both manage up and manage down in a way that sort of makes this feel like a more compassionate workplace.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: That’s right. The managers who are above him have a significant part to play in setting that climate.

DAN MCGINN: His bosses seem so negative that I just don’t see what tactics he could use in the managing up. I’m sure he could come up with something, but that seems like the nut to crack here.

ALISON BEARD: So, what should he do if his boss shuts him down?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: So, his best bet is to try to find someone in the organization who seems to be in a position of power, who he would think of as broken. He talks about other managers seem broken. One says it destroyed his marriage. I would reach out to those guys because those guys have put their finger on the pulse of the fact that there is a huge systemic issue here that they have paid huge personal consequences for. So, I would engage them. Sometimes there are people who are in organizations in high levels of leadership who find themselves trapped in an inescapable web of toxicity that they don’t know how to get out of themselves. And so, he might be able to position himself as their liberator, as a co-conspirator of sorts to help them solve for the very problems that they see that they don’t know how to get out of themselves.

ALISON BEARD: Nicholas, if he does find allies who are willing to start a mini movement with him, where does he go next?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: The next step is to assemble a group of people who have widespread, what we’d call brokerage in the network. People who are connectors. People who are social capital rich, who can represent constituencies in the organization, whether because they have formal power over them or because they are just really, really influential in shaping people’s opinions and emotions. Find these people and share with them what you’re trying to accomplish. Ask their advice? Do they think this is something worth solving for? Because if they don’t think it’s something work solving for, they will block you. And then also, I would give them the opportunity to feel like they are a part of activating the movement, not that the movement is happening to them. You want them to not buy in. You want them to build the movement with you. So, once you’ve got that momentum, you’ve reached your tipping point and before you know it, the senior leadership doesn’t have to force the change. There will be a nice synchronicity between the desire for change at the top and the desire for change at the bottom.

ALISON BEARD: So, do you think for a man in this position, is it worth all that effort?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: He’s got to be sure. If he is certain that this is an organization he’s committed to, or that this is a career field that he’s committed to and he feels called to make a difference in this place, with these people, then he’s got to stick with it. If he is short of that and can identify meaningful alternatives that are viable for him and his career and for his wellbeing, then the exit ramp is always an option.

ALISON BEARD: So, we talked about how agitating for change can be risky, but we talked about ways you might do it internally that it sort of diminishes the risk. We haven’t talked about the idea of him being something of a whistleblower about this organization, talking to a local newspaper about the working conditions and the demands being made on these very poor workers. What do you think about that Nicholas?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: That’s always an option. It’s also a risky option. Going to an immigrant’s rights group or another advocacy group can be a viable option as well, but usually their interests are not so much about protecting you, it’s about protecting the people who they care about. And so, in going external you may be able to drive change and create a meaningful movement but recognize that it may be at your own expense. It sounds like this is a low trust environment, so it could be the very people he’s trying to advocate on behalf of, who will distrust the decision that he has made because they’re going to question his motives. And so, it is a high risk, full contact sport that if he doesn’t want to leave, he’s got to wrap his mind around what if this means I have to leave anyway.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Dan, you use to cover the auto industry. Did you ever run into a story like that where workers agitated for change by going outside of the company?

DAN MCGINN: I mean it’s such a different environment because the auto companies are so heavily unionized and one of the reasons unions were invented was to try to fix some of these problems.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So, to sum it all up, what are we recommending to our operations supervisor?

DAN MCGINN: So, first we’re recognizing how there’s a lot of people, including the managers he describes in his letter who have decided they can’t change anything and they’re just sitting back and letting this happen. The fact that he wants to do something says a lot about his character and we commend that. How he can actually change it is going to be challenging. Cultural change, it’s hard to do from the bottom up. It’s much more likely to happen from the top down. If he’s going to tactically try to solve some of the day to day problems facing these workers, the first step is to really understand the problems from their standpoint. We think that trying to find likeminded managers who might quietly also think there’s a problem here creates some alliances, trying to get other viewpoints on the circumstance. The last thing is there’s a lot of risk in what he’s trying to do. If he is going to take on this challenge he needs to be aware that there’s a lot of cost associated with it. Its batten down the hatches and be ready for a tough fight.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: He’s got to be ready to fight like he’s going to stay but prepare like it’s going to cost him his job.

ALISON BEARD: All right, let’s go to the next question. Dear HBR: my group has extremely high turnover. My manger appears clueless about why. Because of this we’re short staffed every single day. A typical shift goes like this. Employees report for duty. Everyone gets to work until someone notices that a worker isn’t there. The manager is called. She informs us to get the employee directory and make a few phone calls to get someone to come in. We’re not management, but entry level. OK. We call everyone in the directory who isn’t already at work. Either they don’t answer or refuse to come in. Now, everyone has to split the assignment and pick up extra work on top of an already heavy workload. Nurses are helping prepare food. Health Aides are helping with laundry. Everyone is frustrated and angry. Then the manager finally comes in and yells at us for not trying hard enough to get more people to come in. Going to Human Resources doesn’t help because she is the HR manager. The only one. I went to the Director and expressed my concerns. The director went to my manager and told her everything I said. Now, she treats me differently. None of the other managers will meet with me. I need to stay in this job for at least a year, so I gain seniority and move up in the company. But with the way things are now, I’m not sure how to cope with this job. Is it even worth it to move up here?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: This sounds like a textbook case of terrible employee engagement and the absence of psychological safety. This sounds like an organization that you will want to flee because it’s on fire.

ALISON BEARD: Is it an organization or a manager?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: The fact that going to HR doesn’t help and when the Director goes to your manager and discloses everything you shared in confidence, it suggests that there is at least a pocket of toxicity.

DAN MCGINN: All right, I’m going to try to put a happy face on this one.

ALISON BEARD: You never do that, Dan.

DAN MCGINN: Oh, come on. [LAUGHTER] I’m going to argue that this is mostly a scheduling shift absenteeism problem. I wonder whether this is truly a toxic culture, or this is a really, really frustrating problem that drives everyone crazy and I’m totally empathetic about but could be fixed.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: Dan, you are addressing the symptoms and you are leaving the root of the problem unaddressed. You’ve got to get to the why, not just the what.

DAN MCGINN: Here’s what I was thinking. I called a friend of mine. He works for a company that does workplace management software and he said that used to be a huge issue for lots of retailers, for lots of manufacturers, for lots of healthcare facilities. He said, the new way that companies do this is they do it all on phones. They have an app. If you’re going to call out sick from your job, you click a button on an app and without any person getting involved it immediately texts all the other available workers until the shift is picked up. So, that would at least get them out of this business of having to spend hours at the desk calling other workers and nagging each other to come in.

ALISON BEARD: Joan Williams at the University of California actually did some really interesting research on this with the Gap with an app. 62% of the salespeople used it. 72% of the shifts that were posted were covered. Both the salespeople and managers found it to be incredibly useful mainly because there was such a sharp decrease in no shows.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: The band aid will help in the short term. People will be perhaps happier with the efficiency of the scheduling process. What this will not change however, is people not wanting to be there. What she said was her job has extremely high turnover and her manager is clueless as to why. Because of the high turnover they’re short staffed every single day. So, to me the high turnover is a symptom or consequence of people not wanting to be there unless they absolutely must be in the building. And that issue does not get solved by having a better technological tool to help them know when they need to be in the building. You want to solve for why they don’t want to be there.

DAN MCGINN: Research shows that the vast majority of people are not engaged in their jobs. So, I’d say this is more the norm than the exception. And the idea that many work places are going to have a super highly engaged workplace, that’s not realistic. I think especially when you get into some of the kinds of settings we’re talking about today. Warehouse operations or the night shift at a hospital. Absenteeism is going to be a problem and I wonder if there’s not a ceiling on what you can expect in terms of engagement.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: People are exceptionally gifted at knowing how to do the bare minimum to keep their job. The bare minimum to get their paycheck or even if they have big aspirations to be the best in their department. They know how to do the bare minimum to be the best in their department. But for each and every one of us, there is a whole lot more that we have to offer. There’s more effort. There’s more time. There’s more creativity that we could lend to our employer if we were so inclined. That’s what researchers call discretionary effort. And this unlocking of discretionary effort, you can’t force that out. Neither can a technological tool that solves for when people need to be there. That’s not going to help people bring their very full best when they’re there.

DAN MCGINN: Can I throw out one more band aid idea? This is a study by Becky Schaumberg of Wharton and Francis Flynn from Stanford. Basically, they found that people who have a high level of the emotion of guilt tend not to miss many days of work. And this will sound totally crazy, but when they’re hiring to replace these nurses they could sort of test for that.

ALISON BEARD: Nicholas, what do you think?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: I’m not clear that we can assume that these people who are not showing up to work feel no guilt.

ALISON BEARD: They’re not even answering their phones or texting back or explaining why.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: They may have reached a point where they have decided to engage in self-care as opposed to other care. I see this in caring professions all the time, where people have compassion fatigue and they care a ton. Whether it is an inner city elementary school teacher that is trying to teach without current books or someone in a hospital setting that’s trying to take care of an impossibly large load of patients. You name it. I’ve even seen it with some pastors. I cannot say for sure that these people who are disengaged are not just burned out. This is a key warning sign that an organization is in decline. People see that the building is on fire, the firefighters haven’t shown up and so their way of starting to self-protect is to gather their belongings so to speak, and be ready to march out at a moment’s notice and care about themselves before the organization.

ALISON BEARD: My question for both of you is whether this is a cultural problem, or it’s a structural scheduling problem. Does this young woman have the power to fix it?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: I think she can do it in concert with other people. This is an incredibly heavy lift to undertake on a solo basis especially when some of the people who should be your partners in crime are actually committing other crimes.

ALISON BEARD: She’s tried talking to her own boss. She’s tried talking to the Director of the organization. She’s seems in this case a little bit powerless to me.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: If she’s able to galvanize the entire group of those individuals who are disengaged, disenchanted and is able to create a vision of what could be if they engage in collective action, if she’s able to create that, that could be a very powerful social movement inside. And we’re seeing that in some organizations now, even in higher Ed where non-tenured-track faculty are starting to unionize a similar idea where people who are not happy with the way things are going for them and others like them, they decide to band together and instead of being cherry picked off one by one, they go in with the power of collective impact and decide to stand firm until a change is made.

ALISON BEARD: If she gets some likeminded colleagues together and starts agitating for change, who should she go to?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: This goes straight to the CEO, or to whoever is in charge of this organization. And what she and her kind of co-conspirators have to be able to come up with is a cogent coherent shared list of demands. These are the things that we see as problems and these are the things that we want to be solved for or else. Right? And so, this is where the collective impact really comes into play. You almost have to galvanize them into a union like mentality to say, you can fire one of us, but you can’t fire everybody. This organization cannot function without us. And so, if you want us to be happy, provide a patient care, doing the right things the right way, you need to hear our concerns and it’s actually in your best interest to do so. So, this is to the CEO, not just to the HR manager.

DAN MCGINN: So, Alison, what are we telling this person?

ALISON BEARD: So, I think we understand that this woman is in a really tough position because she’s not a manager and she’s talked to her managers and they haven’t helped her so far. We do think that she can take some small steps to maybe change the situation. One is just sort of structurally, can she suggest a different type of scheduling technology that might help people make their schedules more stable, or give them the ability to trade so they have more flexibility. Secondly, can she work in a very small way to make the culture a more caring and compassionate one such that the team really does feel like they’re working together, and they do feel guilty when they let each other down and don’t show up for their shifts. She also needs to ask herself whether she’s willing to stick in there and agitate for cultural change and the best way to do that is to band together with likeminded colleagues and start a movement and take it all the way to the top. Advocate for what they believe would be a better workplace environment. But again, that’s a really difficult fight and she won’t be able to do it on her own.

DAN MCGINN: So, onto the next letter.


DAN MCGINN: Dear HBR: I’m a new manager, a man hired to remotely manage a business unit and fix organizational culture that has gone bad. I work in the enterprise software space. Like a lot of companies trying to keep up with the latest technology, my company bought a successful startup and turned it into a business unit. That worked for a while, but as the product and market matured there was tremendous pressure to innovate and create new revenue streams. Up until now the managers and tech architects from the startup were very resistant to any change. So, they came up with a new product still relying on a notion that how we got here will make us successful. The resulting product had a disastrous debut. Horrible customer feedback. The product managers blame the engineers. The engineers blame the executives. And because the new product was not performing well the original product team kept their distance. They made snide remarks. Some openly questioned why management is throwing good money after bad. The managers within the new team would blame each other for any failures. Now it’s all infighting and finger pointing, and the original founders of the startup have moved on having fulfilled their obligation to stay through the acquisition. That’s where I come in, except I’ll be managing this unit remotely. I’ve spoken to some of the engineers who left, and they blame a toxic workplace culture. How can I fix this toxic culture?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: This letter writer had best get his boots on the ground. You cannot fix culture sitting in your living room with your house shoes on behind a laptop. You have to build people’s gut level relational trust that not only do you know what you’re doing from a competence perspective, but that your motives are pure. If he does not build that level of trust there’s no way that he’s going to be able to fix a toxic culture because at the root of this toxic culture it sounds like is a lack of trust among what should be colleagues and collaborators.

DAN MCGINN: Are you saying that this can’t work if he remains remote and doesn’t physically and permanently relocate to the startup? Does he actually have to move across the country to where it is as far as you’re concerned?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: If he wants to fix the culture, yes.

ALISON BEARD: That’s a pretty big shift.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: Yes. Fixing culture is a big job and this is not something that you can remote control. This is something that is intensely human, intensely personal, intensely relational and what the research tells us is that we are able to build trust with people through sustained interaction and we are most easily able to interact with people who are physically close to us. That being even more than 10 meters away from someone decreases your likelihood of communication exponentially. So, when there’s no communication, there’s no relationship. No relationship, no trust. No trust, no license to lead. No license to lead, no right to change the culture. You’re not even a part of the culture. You’re on the outskirts. You’re not even a part of it in many people’s minds.

ALISON BEARD: I think the tough thing in this case is because this new product has failed. There’s intense blaming culture going on as opposed to a learning culture where people learn from mistakes. We publish a lot of great research from Amy Edmondson on strategies for learning for failure. She talks about the idea that they’re sort of blameworthy failure which is someone not doing what they’re supposed to do and then there’s praiseworthy failure, which is people experimenting. And so, I think you’re right that this guy needs to get on the ground. I don’t know that he needs to make it a permanent move, but I think his very first step should be to just sort of reset everyone’s expectations about what they’re doing. I mean obviously that’s all easier said than done. So, Nicholas I’d love to hear from you just about how to make that shift. How to shift yourself away from a culture where everyone’s fighting and blaming and just the swirl of negativity.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: I think Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety comes to mind here. Creating an environment within which people can share their work relevant thoughts, feelings and ideas without fear of rejection or retaliation or humiliation or reprisal. That element of psychological safety is something that leaders and managers can be very, very instrumental in bringing about in their organizations and in their teams, but not from a distance. This is something that they have to model, not just preach.

ALISON BEARD: So, let’s say he does move or at least moves there for a time, what should he do his first day that he walks into this office to set a new tone?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: Listen to the people who are already there. Get their point of view on what is going on, whether it’s good, whether it’s bad, what they would change if they could, what they would keep if they could. One of the real temptations that new managers often have, especially when they feel like they have a mandate to change culture is they burn it all down. And the reality is even for toxic cultures, there is some redeeming quality that makes the culture worth being in. For a new manager to come in and say, you know, your culture is terrible, let’s try again, is basically to say, what you have been spending your last several years building is worthless. But trust me. I know what’s best for everyone. That is a recipe for disaster.

DAN MCGINN: Nicholas, for this manager who’s been given this very difficult assignment, we want them to fix the culture, but should he already be thinking about what happens if he can’t, whether this unit needs to be shut down? Whether strategically there were so many problems made upstream from him that it might be time to cut their losses on this?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: I’m convinced that almost no organization is beyond transformation. So, the idea of necessarily needing to shut it down because the work is too hard, this is not just an organization on paper. This is not just an idea. You’re talking about people’s lives, people’s livelihoods, their families, their ability to take care of people who are depending on them which has impact on communities. So, I would use that as a very last resort, after every conceivable approach was considered.

ALISON BEARD: I think this manager is actually in a good position because he’s sort of walking into something that’s already a colossal failure, right?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: It’s a turnaround, yeah.

ALISON BEARD: So, there’s really only upside from here which I think is great.


ALISON BEARD: I think articulating exactly what he wants to do after he’s done that listening tour that you talked about, you know, what are we all working towards here and how are we going to get there together? I think is so critical for him to do. He just seems to be throwing up his hands at the stage and just like your impulse Nicholas, I just want them to get in there and just sort of roll his sleeves up and get to work.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: Agreed. I think a lot of leaders underestimate the value and importance of informal interactions. As a pastor in a fairly large church, one of the things that I most enjoy doing is walking around saying thank you when I find people doing great stuff. And by doing that not only am I able to build relationship, but also able to influence the culture in a way that is not heavy handed, that does not feel manipulative. I’m able to influence culture and people not even know that’s what I’m doing! It’s very powerful. And a lot of leaders think about the formal mechanisms that they have at their disposal: organization design, value statements, performance management systems, talent development systems, all these sorts of things, which are critically important. But you’ve got to build informal relational equity. You’ve got to spend time with people, you’ve got to do lunch with people, you’ve got to have coffee chats with people. So that you can not only get the pulse, but also get the right to influence how people think, feel, and behave.

ALISON BEARD: Boris Groysberg just wrote a terrific piece for us about culture and he talks about levers for cultural change. You need to select and develop other leaders who align with the target culture, right? So, if there are influencers in the organization who are creating this culture of blaming, he needs to have frank conversations with them and quite possibly move them. He should then promote the engineers or the influencers who can move him to that learning culture that he wants. I also think that this idea that there’s still an old product team and a new product team is creating the problem. Can he mix these people up and put old product people on the new product and get everyone working together? It seems like there are many things he can do to get this ball rolling and get things moving in a more positive direction.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: Absolutely. I agree.

DAN MCGINN: I’d like him to have a very clear definition of what fixing the problem means. Is the goal just to fix the toxic culture in this distant startup so that it’s better functioning, or does fixing it mean transplanting the headquarters culture of the acquired company into the startup? Because those are really two different things. What you’re actually going to do day to day to try to do those things will vary a great deal based on what your desired outcome is.

ALISON BEARD: I think also part of fixing the problem is figuring out how their next product launch can be a success.

DAN MCGINN: Absolutely.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: I would even ask an even bigger question which is, should our letter writer believe the idea that his mandate is to effect change? I have met many a leader who came in with a clear mandate to turn things around and change the culture and whoever told them that that was their mandate lied to them. That’s not necessarily what they were hired to do. They were hired to care take or to make incremental progress, not to change a culture. And that could be why he’s being asked to change culture remotely. He’s being setup to fail.

ALISON BEARD: So, it’s possible that the company just wants the product to get off successfully and doesn’t really care about changing the environment at this workplace?

NICHOLAS PEARCE: Absolutely right. It’s possible that that is all they want and so, they are blaming it on culture or pointing to culture issues, but they are unwilling to do the heavy lifting that’s necessary. They just want to be profitable again and have a successful splash.

ALISON BEARD: So, Dan, what are we telling this person to do?

DAN MCGINN: He may hate to hear this, but he may need to physically, permanently move to this new location if he really wants to fix this problem. This is not something you can do via email or via videoconference. Once he gets there he needs to go on a listening tour. He’s already done a great job of doing exit interviews with the employees that are quitting, now it’s time to talk to the people who are remaining. What are their problems? What do they see as the low hanging fruit? What are the fixes that we’ll get the highest returns? Are there pockets of opportunity? Are there employees who are really modeling good behavior who can be promoted within the organization, who can be held up as role models? We think he needs to really define what fixing the problem means. We think he should think about and talk about the purpose of this organization, what the mission is, what they’re trying to do. Try to give these people a reason to get excited to get out of bed and come to work in the morning. Finally, we think that there’s a lot of upside for him here. It’s hard to change a culture from the bottom. The good news is he’s the boss. He’s got a mandate to go in there and change things, but we’re recognizing this is really a big challenge.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: That’s great.

ALISON BEARD: Well, Nicholas, thank you. I think these are some of the most difficult problems that we’ve had from letter writers so far, so we really appreciate you helping us sort through what advice we should give them.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: It was my pleasure. I enjoyed our conversation. I’m just hoping that these three make it out of their organizations alive. [LAUGHTER]

ALISON BEARD: Or, make their organizations better.

NICHOLAS PEARCE: One, if not both.

DAN MCGINN: That’s Nicholas Pearce. He’s an Associate Professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Thanks to the listeners who wrote us with their questions. Now, we want to know your questions. Send us an email with your workplace challenge and how we can help. The email address is

ALISON BEARD: On our next episode we’re going to be talking about lateral moves — how to know when they’re going to push you forward — or hold you back.

DAN MCGINN: To get that episode automatically, please subscribe. I’m Dan McGinn.

ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Thanks for listening to Dear HBR:.