Putting Out the Fire: How New Leaders Can Restore Calm in a Dysfunctional Workplace

How New Leaders Can Restore Calm in a Dysfunctional Workplace

Being a new CEO in any company is an exciting yet challenging opportunity. If you have been sourced externally for the role, it was probably because your predecessor did not post the results desired by the board and investors. Companies that are performing well seldom hire top executives externally; they often promote from within their ranks.

It isn’t uncommon for CEOs to join organizations excited to make their mark, only to be hit by buyer’s remorse after a few weeks on the job. Even when you have done your due diligence and felt that you understand the company’s strengths and challenges adequately, you won’t truly appreciate the depth of such challenges until you have joined the organization.

As a new leader, it can be challenging to confront and dismantle toxic and dysfunctional workplace structures. Most leaders choose to ignore such problems, especially when they have not escalated to crisis levels. However, learning how to identify a dysfunctional or toxic work culture, as well as the steps you can take to fix it, is the key to transforming your company and getting results.

Defining Your New Role

As the new leader of an organization, your first task must be to:

  • Evaluate whether the organization runs effectively for the short term
  • Evaluate whether the company is in robust enough shape to move into the future

The ideal circumstance is to have a company that runs efficiently and effectively over the short term, allowing you to focus on long-term growth. The senior executives are then responsible for ensuring short-term success. 

As a new CEO, your success depends on three qualities:

  • Ability to make decisions quickly and with confidence/conviction
  • Ability to work proactively and engage with employees to adapt to the environment and make maximum positive impact
  • Ability to deliver results according to all interested parties’ expectations – the board, investors, shareholders, and employees

Don’t Run Towards Restructuring

Just because you can restructure the organization doesn’t mean you should.

In some cases, full-on restructuring may be helpful, but there are two vital aspects to this. First, restructuring is time- and resource-intensive, and it may not always deliver the results you think it will. Second, any restructuring must be implemented in a way that maintains the sustainability of the company structure over the long term. 

Restructuring should only be carried out when it serves a company’s short-term and long-term objectives, but more so the latter. Avoid restructuring simply to improve short-term performance. This should only be carried out when you have a big-picture goal – to change the organization’s culture, values, or incentives to further long-term strategic objectives.

Engage with Your New Employees

Shortly after starting his job, one began an interesting practice: he wore a pedometer and made a point of engaging meaningfully with as many of his employees as possible. His target was to make 10,000 steps while meeting his staff. 

These one-on-one encounters, though brief, helped him to learn about the operations of the entire company, as well as connecting personally with employees at all levels. Additionally, they provided unique opportunities for him to explain the company’s strategy and some of the changes he was making.

The same CEO also made a point of writing 10-20 handwritten notes to employees to celebrate their achievements. Over 10 years he wrote over 30,000 notes – you would find his handwritten notes stuck to employee’s bulletin boards all over the company.

Building strong relationships takes time. You won’t see the results for many months, but it is critical for organizations that suffer from lack of cooperation and trust among employees. He didn’t turn around the organization overnight, but these two steps helped him to connect with employees on a human level. He understood them, and they, in turn, sought to understand and follow his directions. 

Rebuild Your Team

A dysfunctional workplace often has non-performing, under-performing, and downright toxic executives, managers, and employees strewn all over the company. You may find a handful of effective and enthusiastic leaders aligned to your mission. If you’re lucky, you may be able to train your leaders to back up the work you are doing. Rebuild Your Team in a dysfunctional workplace

You may need to recruit an external agency to help you identify the root of a dysfunctional or toxic culture and build a stronger and more effective team. Few employees trust their internal HR departments – one survey showed that 70 percent of employees say HR is not their friend. Another 41 percent reported that they had been retaliated against (or seen a colleague face retaliation).

Of course you can’t fire everyone right off the bat. However, over time (months, even years), work on moving and removing until you have a team that is aligned to your strategy. You may need to move people who are better suited for other roles to the places where they can do their best work. 

Lead from the Front

One foolproof way to connect with your employees is to make a genuine effort to lead by example. If you want to foster trust and cooperation among employees, take time to connect with them, avoid toxic positivity, learn what they do and make policies that support them. 

In many companies, employees are overworked, underpaid, and disgruntled because they don’t feel valued and heard. Be deliberate about showing sincere appreciation/commendation for work well done. Listen to those who are underperforming and support their improvement journey before simply showing them the door.

Be humble – this doesn’t mean cowering and not expressing what you want for the organization. However, it does mean recognizing that you have plenty to learn from everyone you meet regardless of their rank.

The best way to effect change is to embody the values you wish to promote within your organization. 



A lot of the work in fixing a broken organizational culture is fostering meaningful engagement and relationships between employees and from leaders to employees. Before you restructure, retrain employees, get new tech, refine processes, and take time to identify and resolve the root cause of employee dissatisfaction.

The heavy lifting comes in understanding the root cause of workplace toxicity or dysfunctionality. Once you have done this, you will know exactly how to go about improving performance and rebuilding workplace relationships. 


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