What’s going on in the ‘international development’ sector when charities are found to have toxic cultures? And organisations which claim to be working to end poverty get embroiled in scandals about sexual abuse? Beyond the obvious need to address specific individuals and instances of abuse, what, as leaders, can we do to limit toxic cultures in our organisations more widely?
In a 2010 article entitled Mission Mirroring: Understanding Conflict in Non-profit Organisations, David Allyn looks at the phenomenon of ‘non-profits’ replicating the problems they set out to address in world. He posits that this happens because staff often have ‘..an acute sense of right and wrong combined with an informed knowledge of a particular issue’. He believes this makes ‘mission-driven cultures….inherently conflictual’. As leaders, our task is therefore to recognise and accept conflict as an predictable facet of our work.
Creating the space for constructive debate and the potential conflict that arises because of it is one thing we might welcome. But challenging cultures which replicate the problems we set out to address in the world is, I think, another. One we should be committed to finding ways to tackle rather than simply manage.
In a recent piece in Third Sector Matthew Sherrington identifies that ‘idealism, passion and principles’ can lead to ‘commitment, strong opinions, and a work ethic that can verge on martyrdom’. If our commitment to mission and fear of ‘damaging the work’ allows this dynamic to thrive, he believes that leaders need to work to re-set organisational cultures so that staff don’t ‘unfairly bear the brunt’ of this.
But how to re-set culture? I want to offer some reflections here.
First, I think it is time for us to acknowledge that we can be committed to and passionate about something AND and the same time treat people badly. And so toxic culture results not from an absence of passion or commitment but from an environment in which treating ourselves and one another badly is acceptable.
The real challenge we face therefore is not a lack of intended commitment to the ideas we are passionate about but cultures that allow people to become expendable in pursuit of the mission. We need instead to be leaders who value people as much as we value our missions and to become organisations in which we resist treating one another as expendable and instead promote the idea that collectively supporting one another will ultimately, support our purpose.
The Shadow Work processes I use with the people helps them to look at the parts of themselves they may be suppressing. One of the ways in which we identify these parts is to invite people to think about the parts of their personality that seem to slip out by accident. For example, they may find that from time to time they get angry and when they do so it beyond their rational control yet they put a lot of effort into not being ‘an angry person’. Their anger instead slips out by accident.
If we take an NGO to be a culture for the purposes of this reflection then we might observe that, behaviours that are contrary to our beliefs and values seem to ’slip out by accident’. They are like shadows — things we are trying pretty hard not to do or accept amongst us — but which seem to show up anyway.
Thinking of these things as the shadows of this work, rather than simply a mirror as Allyn posits, can I think provide a framework for a deeper understanding of why toxic culture may show up even when we are trying to be ‘nice’ to each other. It can also, I think, provide an alternative strategy for working towards addressing the toxicity.
In our cultures it is common place for expressing our emotions to be unwelcome and looking after ourselves and each other to be de-prioritised. Even where NGOs pay lip service to wellbeing and have some service provision in place, many still have an incoherent approach and a culture of unrealistic expectations of staff in which completing ‘action’ at all costs is routinely prioritised over people. In these environments human beings end up being ‘expendable’ in service of the mission, whether we realise it or not.
Rather than trying harder to get along with each other or simply striving to show better individual leadership instead, a Shadow Work lens inspires me to think about us creating more safer spaces for staff and teams to express genuine emotions and to allow ourselves to be, for example, angry and sad about the things we are working on.
The whole context of global poverty and inequity is, though culturally normalised, in fact traumatic. On an individual level there is also considerable vicarious trauma in people working in the sector as a result of the contexts and environments in which we work.
From this perspective I would invite organisations to consider how they could invite staff to reflect on a whole range of emotions they are feeling in relation to their work and lives. We would do well to create spaces in which staff are able to value their whole selves, including the less palatable bits. What we witness and acknowledge can then be worked with and healed rather than suppressed.
When we work all the hours and don’t honour our personal need to express how we fell, rest and take space from our work, we treat ourselves as expendable. When we allow toxic behaviours to develop in our work places in support of our passion for the ‘mission’ we treat those around us as expendable resources. When we don’t create spaces for expressing emotions and reflecting on our practice, we are collectively surpassing the energy we need to create more effect change in the world.
You are not expendable and I am not expendable either.
We need rest
We need joy
We need space to reflect
And when we deny them to ourselves and each other we are treating ourselves, I think, as expendable. In the ‘do-it-all’ culture that I think currently frames much of our working lives, people are essentially expendable — they just need to work as hard as they can to get as much as possible done.
In the resilient and human culture, I advocate for in my work I am inviting people to say ‘actually I’m not expendable and you’re not expendable either’. And then to ask the question, what would change if they refuse to be expendable?
If we can re-envision our work in the international development sector as being about resisting the systems that create injustice and inequity, working to heal the trauma they have created and to re-envision a fairer and more just world, we need to view ourselves as allies, activists and practitioners who need supportive spaces to challenge and express ourselves.
It is not that we are ‘healers’ but that we are on a collective healing journey, meaning that we are learning how to heal ourselves and others in order to heal the injustice in our world. If we aren’t in the active practice of this collective healing, which means addressing inequity and injustice in ourselves and one another, addressing the root causes of poverty and injustice in the world and doing so without viewing ourselves or each other as expendable, then we will continue to accidentally ’slip into’ the patterns of the things we purport to resist. The best way to challenge this is to be in the practice of actively acknowledging and resisting these patterns and exploring doing things differently in every facet of our day to day work.
If you’d like support around building up your own wellbeing practices to sustain the impact of your work long term, find out more about working with me as an individual or hiring me to work with your organisation here.
This piece was originally published on Medium on March 20th 2019.