Fighting dickheads at work
We've all been in a situation where we are stuck with a dickhead in the office. What do you do?
Katriina Tahka has some answers.
Originally a solicitor who litigated cases involving discrimination, harassment and nasty cases of bullying, for the past 20 years she has worked in the realm of HR. She is now co-CEO of A Human Agency, A-HA!, a Sydney consultancy which specialises in office culture, diversity, mopping up toxic messes and mapping out good times at work. This is an edited extract of a long chat she had with Clear Spot's Jackie Dent, covering everything from Dickheads 101, the new era of holocracy (?!) and the fading appeal of command and control leadership.
WHY ARE THERE DICKHEADS AT WORK?
I think there are three layers to this issue. By the time someone is a dickhead at work and allowed to be, they are obviously working within a workplace culture that is either allowing, enabling or in even worse cases, even encouraging that sort of behaviour.
Sometimes it’s just a random individual but if you are working in a good company, a dickhead will usually get dealt with quickly and swiftly and they're gone. I have seen places where somebody does something terrible, a complaint is made and 'see you later' — they are dismissed, which is what should happen if it's on that scale of badness, for want of a better word.
However, where dickheads really thrive in workplaces is if they are able to keep working there and in fact be quite successful and rewarded and paid well. You have to look then at not only the individual but the workplace culture.
People might say it’s about that one person but actually — if you’ve been giving that person bonuses and rewards for years, then it's actually about both — the individual and the culture that allows that to happen.
What’s really fascinating at the moment is the way the media is focusing on workplace culture. They are looking at all the issues that are emerging out of the Commonwealth Bank, and before that Channel 7 and before that ANZ, with the behaviours of people going to strip clubs. Increasingly, big companies are realising that the workplace culture is part of the issue and asking what does the culture tolerate, what does it allow to happen that is actually quite toxic and detrimental to people?
IT CAN BE HEARTBREAKING IF YOU COMPLAIN TO MANAGEMENT AND NOTHING HAPPENS.
Absolutely. It's heartbreaking and what's worse is that it can cause quite serious mental health issues and stress, and that’s unfortunately the more common way these things get handled.
WHY ARE MANAGERS AFRAID OF DETOXING?
Usually they think it’ll be their head. I was just in a coffee shop looking at the paper at the report that has come out about the Australian Olympic Committee and ... was amazed to read that in that situation, very senior people said that they were afraid to make a complaint. I think its usually because they fear the consequences on themselves.
Organisations don’t want to hear complaints because it means that there is a problem and they’ve got to fix it ... it means there’s now a risk of some sort of legal issue being made and unfortunately, there are just too many companies that would rather take the ostrich approach and put their head in the sand and not hear it and pretend it doesn’t happen or say, ‘it’s just you — you’re just sensitive’.
I don’t know the numbers of times I’ve heard people say: ‘It’s just you. That was just a joke when they called you a name. You need to get a better sense of humour'. There’s a lot of blame avoidance that happens.
On the flip side, if good companies hear a complaint, they understand that it’s actually something they need to take care of and fix because they are committed to looking after their people. There are many companies and cultures that don’t want to know about complaints and just wish they’d never heard about them. You know when you are working in that sort of place, you don’t make complaints because inevitably it bites you back on the bum.
WHAT IF THE LEADER IS TRULY THE PROBLEM?
It’s a tough one. If you’re an employee and it’s the leader, how do you take that person on? That’s what we keep seeing in the papers - there’s a David and Goliath type situation where somebody dares to take a leader on. There’s a saying that — I heard this expression the other day — ‘fish rots from the head’ and if the leader is setting the tone, then they are setting the culture, they are setting behavioural norms. If one person tries to take that on, it’s rarely going to have much of an impact because for the leader to change something they’d have to acknowledge they are doing something wrong, which most of them don’t — they think they are terrific leaders.
You’d have to have high self awareness to want to change or you’d have to perceive there is a benefit in changing but usually people don’t. This is when you get into that complex area of how do you get people to change behaviour and organisational change behaviour and usually people only change their behaviour because of pain or gain. You’re only going to do it if there’s some benefit for you or you have to because something bad has happened.
The same thing happens with bad leadership behaviours. Either there is a court case or a complaint and you have to change because there has been that pain point. Or best case scenario, people have some sort of 'a-ha' moment and see there’s a better way to be a leader and you can influence people by positive behaviour rather than negative behaviour.
We’ve had a very traditional form of command and control leadership in Australia for a long time - in corporations, institutions, the defence forces. There’s a lot of places where command and control has been the norm and that’s changing now in Australian society.
The better leaders no longer rely on that and I think in the past, command and control went along with behaviours that were really not very pleasant. Screaming and yelling. Bullying. Treating people unfairly.
Modern day leadership is moving right away from that. When you look at what a modern leader should look like, particularly because of the high degree of globalisation, good leaders these days have to be more empathetic, have communication skills and be really good at relating to people and these are all skills that aren’t usually ones that a toxic person exhibits so hopefully that sort of toxic dickhead behaviour will get phased out as we move towards a style of leadership that’s more modern and in keeping with where the world is going at the moment.
WHY ARE WE FIXATED ON LEADERSHIP?
It’s interesting. We rely on leaders to set the vision and the strategy but it’s the actual people that do the doing. Maybe it is an outmoded way of running companies. There’s a movement called holocracy which is a different way of working. Actually, when we set up our agency, we adopted holocracy as our model because it’s based on a circle and its based on saying ‘well, who's got what skills and what are we aiming to do in this project and who is best at doing what bits?’
HOW DID YOU BECOME A HALOCRAT?!
(She laughs) We read all about it and then we met with Stephan Jenner. We met him and had a chat, and then read all this stuff and got obsessed with it. It’s a nonhierarchal way — it's a strength-based approach. You are working with people and if you take an approach that recognises and builds on everyone’s strengths.
That old-fashioned way of looking at leadership and workers still comes from that idea that workers are basically a cost to the business — they are numbers on a page and they are there to do something for the company and the company gets stuff done by telling people what to do, when to do it. That’s very outmoded. It’s not the way to engage people.
HOW OFTEN ARE OFFICE ISSUES JUST A PERSONALITY CLASH?
It's rarer. Particularly if we're talking about more senior people that are dickheads. If it's a peer- on-peer thing then often it's a personality clash but when we're talking about someone in a senior position, then there is a power game.
Usually in the dickhead situation we're thinking about, it is somebody who is an employee and somebody who is more senior.
The question is do you feel brave enough and able to make a complaint. Saying something is always the first step. I wouldn't say go straight to escalating to a big formal complaint because they can be pretty exhausting and pretty tough to go through. The first step would be go and talk to someone. If you can't talk to your manager because they are the problem, then go and talk to another leader in the organisation. Ultimately, the senior people have a responsibility to create a workplace for all employees that is healthy and safe.
If you are not listened to when you try to raise it informally, I would definitely suggest writing a well thought through email to somebody who needs to know. By the time you put something in writing, you will get some sort of response because it's very hard to ignore something in writing that says I've experienced this behaviour and it's made me feel like this. This should alert the company that there is a potentially risky situation that needs to be dealt with.
Why didn't someone say there's a boys-club culture here, where they go to lunch all the time and nudie bars. Someone needs to speak up about cultures that are inappropriate so that something can be done about it.
BUT YOU GET ACCUSED OF BEING A WOWSER.
Totally. That's what happens in Austalian workplaces all the time. We say to people 'Stop being a party pooper, you are really lame, you don't have a sense of humour'. I've heard racist things being said and they say 'Oh it was just a joke, don't be like that, you're not going to make a complaint because we're mates' ... All of a sudden it puts it back on the person.
THINGS ARE CHANGING THOUGH. PEOPLE ARE JUST LEAVING AS THEY COULDN'T BE BOTHERED PUTTING UP WITH CRAP ANYMORE.
Absolutely. It's interesting but micro-businesses of one to four people is the fastest growing sector in Australian business in the last ten years and the rate is increasing year-on-year and the numbers of people is year-on-year decreasing. This is the hopeful thing. People are voting with their feet and going I don't want to work in a big culture like that. These towers of power in the city aren't that attractive when you can create the sort of workplace you want to be in.
Katriina is speaking at Clear Spot Club's "Dickheads at work" Panel on October 19 at Belvoir Street Theatre. Book now!