Toxic culture, and the rise and fall of Darryn Lyons

Generally, when I hear about a workplace riddled with toxic culture and attitudes, I tend to think of the private sector – of old-school businesses with old-school mentalities. Of large corporations firmly propping up the ‘boys club’. Of organisations run by people who think the way fictional advertising agency Sterling Cooper (from AMC’s Mad Men) operates is actually something to aspire to.

However, in the last few days, I’ve been sharply reminded that a problematic culture is not something that only occurs in the private sector. The entire city council of Geelong, Victoria – including controversial mayor Darryn Lyons – is facing the sack after the release of a damning Commission of Inquiry report.

The report details an extremely concerning culture, wherein bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour are rife. Numerous examples of toxic behaviours are provided in the report, all of which paint a picture of a council unable to work together appropriately to govern their city.

“The Workplace Culture Review identified not only the extent and nature of workplace bullying in Greater Geelong City Council, but also a number of related cultural and contributing factors, including the lack of support for staff to make a complaint, staff fear of unfair treatment or reprisal, managers mimicking or modelling inappropriate behaviours by Councillors contrary to the Councillor Code of Conduct, the Councillors not acting as a team, negative gender stereotypes and behaviours, and inappropriate relationships and use of media, including social media.

As the Inquiry progressed, it quickly became apparent to the Commissioners that the problems of the Council and its Administration went much wider. The dominant, self-serving cultures, attitudes and behaviours that have developed over several years within both the Council and some senior levels of its Administration have badly damaged the good governance of the City.”

A lot of the blame for this culture falls on Darryn Lyons – a media personality and former paparazzo, who was elected mayor of Geelong in 2013. A flamboyant character, Lyons courted controversy from the very start of his bid for mayor, and has been the poster boy for pomp and splendour throughout his term. His unorthodox approach to politics was what convinced Geelong – a regional center feeling the impact of rising unemployment and the death of its primary industries – to vote for him. His platform of ‘vision, passion, change’ spoke of a new era for the beleaguered town.

Now, as the Victorian Government seeks to pass legislation that will remove Lyons and his entire council, and have the town run by an administrator until the next election in 2017, it’s clear that the hopes pinned on Lyon by the people of Geelong were for naught.

So what can those of us in the private sector learn from the mistakes made by the Geelong City Council and its problematic celebrity mayor?

  1. Bravado, charisma and three-word slogans are no substitute for considered and skilled management and leadership
  2. Left unchecked, toxicity within an organisational culture can and will spread to all areas of the organisation
  3. The person at the helm of any organisation – be they a Mayor or a CEO – needs to set an example of the kind of behaviour expected of staff
  4. A toxic culture can have a dire impact on the emotional wellbeing of staff – an unnamed Geelong City Council employee, after being the victim of a campaign of ‘unfounded and insidious rumours’ by a Councillor, told the Commission that “it destroyed me, I was suicidal”.
  5. A deep-seated culture of bullying and harassment can be indicative of a broader set of issues. The Commission found that the Council lacked a “shared long-term vision, an absence of respect, accountability, shared and lived corporate values, risk aversion, reluctance to shed old and inefficient ways of doing things, not supporting staff and resisting change”.
  6. An organisation riddled by toxic culture cannot perform at a high standard
  7. Outlining or detailing corporate values does not magically mean they will be evident in the way an organisation conducts itself – the Council has values of ‘Integrity, Responsibility, Innovation, and Respect’. Adhering to those values is something that all employees need to commit to.

While the media circus surrounding the demise of the Geelong City Council is undoubtedly entertaining, it’s also a great learning opportunity for any organisation – private or public sector. At the end of the day, we all have a responsibility to ensuring our workplaces are safe, productive and positive places to work.

In short – don’t do what Darryn Lyons does.

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