Why are leaders reluctant to confront poor behaviours that impact company culture?

Back to insights

Take a moment to think about your company’s culture…

What’s your leadership style?

What values do you live by?

What are you doing it all for?


We all know company culture is important to our success. Research from McKinsey shows that organisations with the best cultures post a 60% higher return to shareholders compared to the average, and an incredible 200% higher than those with poor company cultures. And from a change perspective, 70% of transformation projects fail because of culture-related reasons.

So let me share a harsh reality with you:

Your company culture is shaped by the worst behaviours your leaders are willing to tolerate.

It’s amazing how quickly bad behaviours can deflate everything in your business. I bet you’ve felt it before. One person has a negative mindset or exhibits poor behaviours, it sends a ripple effect across the office to the point where everyone feels flat – the classic ‘mood hoover’. Left unchecked, it can have a serious impact long-term on your company culture.


Have you considered you might be the problem?

Often bad behaviours are seen as being tolerated because of a disconnect between what a leader says and does. For example, you might espouse great behaviours and say that it matters how we do things, and then reward/recognise the person who takes no prisoners. 

When your people see certain behaviours being tolerated, it doesn’t matter what the lovely values statement says on your wall, these behaviours become the norm. I have seen many instances when toxic behaviours go by unchallenged because, “oh, he’s always like that” or, “yes, but she is our guru on XYZ”. 

So what holds managers back from confronting it? 


Why is it ok to challenge a child but not a colleague?

Imagine your child was visibly unfriendly and fractious in a group and called their peers bad names like, “Mr doo-doo head”. After practising the art of maintaining a stoic face during the explanation, you’d immediately call them on it:

“What made you act like that?”

“How could you have worked through that problem in a different way?”

“How do you think that name made little Johnny feel?”

As parents, we become masterful at having that objective conversation by:

  • Setting context (“this is what I observed”).
  • Setting boundaries (“we don’t do that”).
  • Reframing (“this is what was really happening”).
  • Redirecting (“we do this instead”).
  • Coaching the right behaviour and what to do in certain situations, hoping that you will finally create a good citizen out of your child over time.

Now imagine a colleague acts up in a similar way in a team setting. To challenge them feels awkward, so we don’t confront the bad behaviour because we don’t feel like we have the right to approach our colleagues in the same personal way as we might a child or partner.

Social awkwardness, the fear of conflict, ego and a lack of confidence all play their part. But know that it’s only a perceived problem. In that moment your mind is racing with questions such as:

“What if I make a fool of myself?

“What if the other person makes a complaint about me?”

“What if we end up in an argument?”

In my experience, those perceived problems rarely happen. Over 80% of the time, if you were to challenge somebody, the person involved puts their hands up, admits it and starts to change – so it actually has a really positive impact for everyone involved and the company culture as a whole. 


Feedback doesn’t need to be personal

When framed objectively, feedback helps people to improve and become better versions of themselves. The best way I’ve found to do this is to feed-forward. 

So rather than say, “That presentation was poor and you didn’t get any engagement from the audience” (feedback), you can say, “Next time, how do you think you could make it more interactive to increase audience engagement?” (feed-forward).

It’s a subtle but important change because your intent is always focused on how to help the other person take action to improve in the future, rather than analyse the past (that we can’t do anything about anyway).

We do this at S&S — it’s part of our culture. We asked our people what they wanted from their leadership team, and then they score us using a traffic light system on how well we’re performing against those attributes. I’m not saying it’s easy to hear when you’re told you’re not ‘green’, but you have to have the maturity to not take it personally and see it as an opportunity to improve. We know we can’t change the past, but we can change the future. All we ask is that if we’re scored ‘red’ or ‘amber’ the person feeds forward so we have some options about how we could improve things.

Top tips for feeding forward:

    • Keep it factual and objective and leave feelings at the door. Use statements like, “What I observed was…”
    • Then focus on the future. Use statements like, “I wonder if next time we could…”
  • And of course, never miss the chance to slip into coaching mode “What do you think you could do to get that effect? What did you learn from that experience? How would you prepare next time?”
  • Do it face-to-face to allow the recipient to question for understanding – try and avoid written feedback/forward because it’s prone to misinterpretation. 

Feedback culture starts right at the top and leaders must be willing to listen.


Just because you’ve been given feedback, doesn’t mean you have to act upon it. This is an important point. I have seen people give feedback and then be frustrated when direct action isn’t taken. Your feedback may lack context (bigger picture, other priorities, intended outcome) that may make it interesting, but ultimately not valid. Feedback/forward is just an opinion, no matter how objective we try to make it. It is information that could be useful. Just because you gave me feedback, doesn’t mean you are right. As a recipient of feedback, we have to assimilate that information with a growth and improvement mindset to determine what subsequent action could be useful. 


Get in touch

I’ve never been afraid to face into the storm and it has always served me well – some of my biggest behaviour challenges as a people manager have proven to be the most fruitful in response. If your culture isn’t aligned with your values, talk to me about how to change and create a deeper level of understanding and connection between your business and your people. 

Get in touch… 

AJ Circle Crop
Written by Adrian Stalham
Read more from the author