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5 minute read

Steve Hearsum, an experienced consultant, supervisor and developer of change practitioners, the founder of Edge + Stretch and the author of ‘No Silver Bullet: Bursting the bubble of the organisational quick fix’, talks us through why BrewDog needed not just a change in CEO, but also a change in culture to enhance employee engagement.

Collectively, we love a toxic culture and the permission to rail at the perceived failures of leadership, especially when once lauded leaders are revealed to be less than perfect. Uber, Wells Fargo and Amazon have all variously been described as having a toxic culture, and more recently so too has BrewDog, sparked by an open letter from disgruntled employees and other stories that subsequently emerged in the media. The fallout of this led to the CEO, James Watt, stepping down, and a collective sigh that, maybe, the source of the problem was no longer going to exert such influence.

When in doubt, thingify

In 2022, the MIT Sloan Management review reported that “a toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover”. Ouch. That means culture is a big problem. We need to fix it. We need leaders who know how to change it. We all need to learn how to healthily create it.

This is where we come to a fundamental problem with the discourse on organisational culture, because ‘thingification’ is endemic in organisations and theories about them. 'Management speak' is dripping with abstractions and nominalisations (verbs solidified into abstract nouns), and boy do we love them e.g.:

  • Organisation - take away the people and it ceases to exist;
  • Change - 'land the change', 'drive change', etc; in the face of a plan crafted elsewhere and visited unthinkingly upon them;
  • Management - bye-bye to managing, hello to management consultants, education and training;
  • Leadership - what was once the practice of leading has been similarly commodified;
  • Culture - the whole construct of 'culture change' is arguably a fallacy as it assumes culture is both homogeneous and a thing.

Why do we love a ‘thing’?

The huge advantage of treating culture this way is that we get to disconnect ourselves from the co-created nature of the social phenomena it represents. If culture is the sum of all the current behaviours of those in an organisation– and I find any definition that excludes that aspect inherently absurd and wrong – how we show up, what we say and do not say, do or do not do, are or are not: all of this influences culture.

Now, it is certainly true that one individual a whole culture doth not make, and it boils down to the choices we make in relationship to/with others. Key to this is what happens in teams, as it is when people come together in groups that culture, however you construe it, is primarily experienced. This is before we even get to the other problem with the idea of uniform, homogeneous cultures in that an organisation will have many micro or sub cultures. Yes, they may be similar but often they can be radically different.

The crunchy bit

All of which begs the question: what to do if your culture is dysfunctional? I worked with an organisation that spent a lot of time and money on a new cultural framework with accompanying behaviours. This intervention was designed to address low trust, poor behaviour, bullying, conflict, siloing and much more.

The problem was that this framework was also treated as an abstraction: the fix to the problem of culture was another object, and the anxiety was palpable when I pointed out that this framework was as much use as the metaphorical chocolate teapot unless people were prepared to use said ‘new behaviours’ as a basis for re-contracting, calling out and holding each other to account.

This work requires better dialogue, sense-making and reflexivity. This cuts against the grain of rhetoric that sees culture as something divorced from human interaction.

The ‘lesSon’ is simple

Accepting how we might be colluding with each other in creating ‘toxic cultures’ is not easy, because it means looking in the mirror. I also do not assume it is easy work, especially when some of the behaviours that most need addressing, like in the BrewDog example, are likely to be those of the people with the most power an influence. And...

Unless we are honest about this, we delude ourselves. Just like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen folktale who had the temerity to suggest the Emperor was wearing no clothes, we need to accept that evolving our workplace cultures means taking risks.

A new colleague once told me three months after I had joined an organisation that there was little point in trying to do anything differently or coming up with new ideas because they were not generally welcomed. I responded by thanking him and saying I would write my own stories. I had not planned to say that; it just popped out and felt profoundly true.

Not always easy

This became a core intention during my time there, and it was not always easy. I would say it was usefully uncomfortable, and this is what we need to embrace if we are to change organisations. Anxiety is always present in organisations, so too shame, and when behaviours are such that culture is experienced as toxic, it strikes me as unrealistic to assume that we can address these challenges without there being some crunchiness along the way. My hope is that the discourse around ‘toxic culture’ can move on from that label, because at the moment it runs the risk of becoming another example of thingification.

Maybe co-creating organisational culture is a little like the fermentation process for beer after all: it is non-linear, sometimes unpredictable, outcomes can be unexpected and what results is not always to everyone’s taste. A bit like people in general, funnily enough.


By Steve Hearsum is an experienced consultant, supervisor and developer of change practitioners, the founder of Edge + Stretch and the author of No Silver Bullet: Bursting the bubble of the organisational quick fix.

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