All Articles Leadership Inspiration Employees say you have a toxic culture? Here's how to fix it

Employees say you have a toxic culture? Here’s how to fix it

4 min read


American Airlines’ merger with US Airways is not going well.

American Airlines’ pilots’ union notified CEO Doug Parker in a March 4 letter that the merger is going so badly that the airline’s former ‘toxic culture’ has returned.

In the letter, the pilots outlined how the airline has violated contract terms as well as federal regulations on crew scheduling, air operations, and labor relations. They explained that the airline’s product is “outright embarrassing and we’re tired of apologizing to our passengers.”

Finally, the pilots described how middle managers are “misaligned” with the CEO’s recent call to action to improve labor relations.

A company spokesman said that executives are “well aware” that a cultural change is needed. At recent meetings in the Dallas headquarters, Parker “told thousands of managers that the airline must take better care of its employees as part of taking care of customers.”

“We’re intent on making American a fantastic place to work,” the spokesman said. The culture change is “not going as fast as we’re wanting.”

It is not unusual for organizations to have a less-than-stellar organizational culture. 64% of respondents to Tiny HR’s 2014 engagement and culture report said that their company doesn’t have a strong work culture.

A few organizations have healthy, vibrant, productive cultures. Those organizations – Starbucks, Zappos, WD-40, Ritz Carlton, etc. – are well-known and celebrated regularly.

Certainly some organizations around the globe deserve the “toxic culture” designation. American is clearly one of those.

Most leaders don’t know the condition of their organization’s culture. They don’t observe, they don’t ask. When they do learn that their organization’s culture is lousy, they don’t know what to do to fix it.

American Airlines’ response to the pilot union’s issues is all too common. And, that response is unlikely to make a dent in their culture issues.

What did executives do? The CEO held a meeting to tell managers to treat employees better. Telling someone how to behave doesn’t mean they’ll behave as you’ve asked! That’s the “managing by announcements” fallacy. The airline’s middle managers aren’t acting to improve labor relations because they’re not being held accountable for doing so.

To ensure aligned behavior, change the rules. Specify the values — in behavioral form — that all leaders and team members must demonstrate in your new culture. You might want behaviors like “Be civil,” or “express gratitude for effort and accomplishment,” or “validate others’ ideas.” Then hold everyone, including executives, accountable for those behaviors, in every interaction.

Contract terms or federal regulations being violated? The customer experience is abhorrent? Change the rules. Make it easy to report issues and violations. Make it easy to report aligned activities. Then, create accountability for all leaders to ensure that these minimum standards are being met. Maybe leaders need to fly often and engage with pilots, employees, and customers — and report back what’s working and what’s not. Celebrate what’s working. Address what’s not.

Want to create powerful accountability? Link a portion of executive and middle manager compensation to employee engagement and customer service as well as to results.

Culture is driven by, reinforced by, and managed by senior leaders. They can’t delegate that authority to anyone else in the organization. They must embrace this responsibility, every day.

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