The topic of this blog and podcast came about following the publication of an open letter to the co-founder of BrewDog James Watt from ex-employees, accusing him of creating a culture of fear in the workplace.
In the letter, circulated on Twitter, former workers alleged that the Scottish brewer’s rapid growth had involved cutting corners on health and safety, espousing values it did not live by, and creating a “toxic” culture that left staff suffering from mental illness.
The language used is particularly emotive and claims that further 45 ex-employees supported the message but refused to share their names for fear of repercussions.
There’s a particular section worth highlighting that for me sums the whole letter up in one go. It starts “So many of us started our jobs at BrewDog eagerly, already bought into the BrewDog ethos only to very quickly discover that ‘fast-paced’ meant unmanageable and ‘challenging’ meant damaging’.
Fast-paced dynamic workplace or somewhere you’re lucky to survive?
This is an example of management failing at every turn. Now I was always a fan of James Watt. He is famous for putting himself out there and being a bit edgy. His book even has a chapter on how to make people hate you. He believes that there is no such thing as a job for life, if you do that you might as well be a zombie. His views are that you go in, do your work and if you move on, you move on. This story however, completely changes my perspective on BrewDog from being a fast-paced dynamic, modern workplace to somewhere that you’re lucky to survive two or three years before you’re being binned off.
Sadly, toxic workplaces, aren’t the preserve of the large corporations, you can have really dysfunctional, toxic work environments in small businesses too. I learnt it the hard way. I was part of a leadership team in a business that had lost a number of really good people in a short space of time. But I didn’t realise how toxic the culture was until I sat in a meeting for over an hour and a half to hear the senior partners conclude that the problem was the staff and not them!
Theory X and Theory Y
In the 1960s, an academic called Douglas McGregor suggested two contrasting management theories, Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X was a traditional view of direction and control that suggested workers required close, firm supervision with clearly specified tasks and that the threat of punishment or the promise of greater pay were the driving motivating factors. The classic stick and carrot technique if you like.
Theory Y, however, suggested that human beings are motivated by engagement, empowerment and will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which they are committed. In short, work can be inherently motivating and people will seek responsibility and see it as reward in itself. McGregor created Theory Y, not as a panacea for all the ills created by Theory X, but he hoped that by highlighting Theory Y, as an alternative it would persuade managers to abandon the limiting assumptions of Theory X and consider using some more of the techniques suggested by Theory Y. I think we still need to be somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes.
A fish rots from the head down.
A business coach once told me, that a fish rots from the head down. You will not find a dysfunctional workplace culture where there is a high-level functioning leader. If the people at the top understand their vision and have clarity on what they’re trying to achieve, then they can build a culture in service of that mission and bring the team along with them. Whereas, bad decisions and poor people management completely takes the legs out from any culture below them.
As a leader, displaying the behaviour that gets the best out of the people is surely the best possible start for creating a culture conducive to human and business growth. If you have a structure that is big enough to contain a tier of middle managers, then it is their job to filter the message from the leadership down through their direct reports. Make sure that those guys are a hundred percent on board and are aligned to your values too, because that’s where the message can get muddled. And how can you expect a manager to build a team if the directors above them can’t stay on message.
Focus on people and the results will follow
It’s easy to imagine that in many bottom-line driven organisations, a focus on profit will outweigh a focus on culture. Going back to BrewDog this was allegedly a case of a hierarchy so focused on growth that it would sweep some people issues under the carpet, as long as the numbers stacked up. But surely, if you help your people be the best they can possible be, the performance will follow.
Both Alan and I recounted stories on the Podcast of our first experiences of management. I was working as a bike mechanic at a national chain, Alan was working at a national DIY store. His store manager demonstrated a thuggery and use of language that many would be appalled at, while I encountered a regional manager that spent his time belittling the store manage, whom everyone liked. In both cases management meant bullying, swearing and keeping people down. Not a great advert for leadership.
It also demonstrated that in any workplace, you don’t necessarily need four or five people of sufficient seniority to create a bad culture, one is all it takes. It may be more detrimental the higher up they are but the power of one individual to undermine an entire business culture is phenomenal.
Listening to staff feedback
Going back to BrewDog employees, it feels that a toxic work environment is just so unnecessary. Very few people leave without giving you a reason, so like your inner critic sift through the gripes and identify some real nuggets. If 30% of your workforce is leaving in a 12 to 18 month period, there’s an issue whether you like it or not, whether it’s too much for your ego or not, there’s an issue. And you need to find out what the problem is and you need to fix it.
One of the best examples of creating a strong company culture was led by Nicole Reid, chief people officer at Xero. Xero refer to their staff as ‘zeros’ which could literally mean nothing, but they have got to the point where people are happy to be classed as a zero because they focus so much on employee engagement. Every day, before they leave their employees do a ten second survey. Have you had a good day, thumbs up or thumbs down? Have any of your colleagues been a star today, write their name and say why? It gives the company a daily pulse check that can measure the health of an organisation. Is there an overriding positive or a negative? Three thumbs down in a week from a colleague is a clear indication that you need to put your arms around them.
Treat people well, and they reward you with better performance
For me there is a clear correlation between culture and performance. If you want growth, improvement, more revenue, then you need a culture that breeds performance. A toxic culture might lead to a short term bump, but overall usually the wheels come off sooner or later. There is no good business reason to allow a toxic culture to invade your organisation. You may not know that you have a toxic culture, but your staff do. So the underlying key message is to talk to your staff.