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Alisa Cohn

Alisa Cohn is an Executive Coach who has worked with C-suite executives at prominent startups (such as Venmo, Etsy, Draft Kings, The Wirecutter, Mack Weldon, and Tory Burch) and Fortune[…]

Even the most empathetic and enlightened leader in the world can foster an “unintended toxic culture” — a culture in which people are working around each other and not with each other. 

As a leader, you want to undergo a radical self-examination to make sure that you are not promoting a difficult culture in your work environment. 

This means that when you think about work culture, don’t just think about employees liking each other, but also about the actual traits and qualities that you need to get business done.

ALISA COHN: You can be the most empathetic person in the world, the most enlightened leader in the world, and you could have what I call an 'Unintended toxic culture'- what that means is that people are working around each other and not with each other. There are cliques that are creating an in-group and an out-group, or other kinds of things that are really preventing people from feeling safe and comfortable, and also is preventing work getting done. So, you as a leader, wanna take a good look in the mirror and do that radical self-examination to make sure that you are not promoting a difficult culture in your work environment. 

Listen, nobody sets out to create a toxic culture. No one intends for it to be difficult. And yet, there are problems brewing inside of the organization. What that can look like, for example, is nobody addresses difficult things or conflict directly. Instead, they gossip behind people's backs. Or, you might be the leader who really wants to bring people on board, but you hire employees who maybe aren't that good, and you might not be addressing difficult issues in the workplace. So then you have these poor performers that nobody's addressing, and it brings down the performance of everybody. 

Those are just a couple of examples of what unintended toxic cultures are. So as a leader, you have to start increasing your own self-awareness to understand what are your natural concerns and blind spots. And also it's really important to look very keenly at your culture and to make sure you have a number of people you can check in with so that you might be appraised if you have a toxic culture. People talk about culture and the way they talk about it, I feel like it just means we like each other. 

Now, I think it's really important in an environment to like each other, that's part of culture. But the other elements of culture are ones you should think about that are important to getting work done in your environment. Do you want proactive people? Make sure you identify that for yourself and for your organization, and hire proactive people. Maybe you're in a certain environment where mistakes are not an option. So you want people who are analytical and methodical, and will measure twice and cut once. Those are the kinds of people that you wanna then hire, and then of course you wanna reward that kind of behavior. 

Another thing you can do is be the leader that you need to be, and communicate to the team, deliver difficult messages with diplomacy, and deal with your team in a way which encourages them, not which beats them down and slows them down. Those kinds of elements are helpful to you when you think about culture. The one thing I want you to take away is: that when you think about culture, don't just think about liking each other, think about the actual traits and qualities that you need to get your business done, and that you want people to work together using those traits- and that will steer you in the right direction of culture.

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