Take Action Against Toxic Behavior, But How?

Take Action Against Toxic Behavior, But How?
How can board members enhance psychological safety within their organization and address toxic behavior? Following the painful scandals at the Dutch public broadcaster, this has proven to be a complex issue for the NPO (Nederlandse Publieke Omroep) chair Frederieke Leeflang. ‘I encountered a lot of resistance’, she shared during the first edition of the Management Scope Dinner & Debate on the theme of psychological safety, in collaboration with LTP Business Psychologists.

From belittling, swearing, and intimidation to sexually inappropriate behavior, the stories about derailed TV personalities in the media center of the Dutch city Hilversum draw a lot of attention but toxic behavior manifests in more places in society. Also within corporate environments. This leads to reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, and legal conflicts, as well as the risk of losing talented employees. Therefore, psychological safety is a topic that the boardroom should not neglect. Board members are often struggling, because it is far from clear how to foster the right conditions within an organization.
This is a reason for LTP Business Psychologists to exchange ideas with CHRO’s on how to ensure psychological safety within their organizations. The dinner & debate, hosted by Management Scope in collaboration with LTP Business Psychologists, took place early April at Fête Vis restaurant in Ouderkerk aan den IJssel.

A nuanced concept
Media reports can create the impression that it is only Dutch celebrities who make themselves guilty of cross-border behavior. Presenters who feel superior to others, for example. There is also a common belief that only narcissistic individuals display toxic behavior. The reality is different, was the message to CHRO’s. ‘Toxic behavior is a potential threat for all leaders. Anyone can derail when the pressure is high’, explains Karst Bongers, organizational psychologist and business lead at LTP. He points out a discrepancy in achieving a socially safe organization. ‘Psychological safety is only possible if leaders set a good example. At the same time, we are aware that people in higher positions tend to exhibit toxic behavior more easily.’
Research indicates 50 percent of people in leadership positions derail at some point in their careers. A surprisingly high number, according to many CHRO’s, but this is partly due to the definition of toxic behavior. Bongers: ‘It is not just about destructive behavior, where leaders display Machiavellian or narcissistic traits. Under pressure, leaders can also engage in dysfunctional toxic behavior. They may opt to look the other way, procrastinate, or adopt a chaotic leadership style. While the latter may seem less severe, it contributes just as much to a toxic work environment. Many people around a destructive leader refrain from intervening when rules of decency are breached.’
Moreover, psychological safety is a nuanced concept. ‘It is different for everyone. One individual may find the work environment satisfactory; another may perceive it as unsafe.’ While there are useful guidelines on how to create a safe work environment, the most important thing is to talk about it. ‘Make it discussable’, adds Bongers.

Less tangible
Ageeth Telleman, CEO of LTP Business Psychologists knows that board members often struggle with various dilemmas when it comes to psychological safety. She speaks from firsthand experience. ‘We aspire to be a flat organization and cooperate with each other informally. At the same time, we strive for a pleasant, secure culture. Confronting one another may seem easy but it remains challenging. Especially people who have been working somewhere for a long time, may have unwritten rules.’ Telleman emphasizes that power dynamics are clearer in a hierarchical organization. ‘In a flat organization these exist as well but are less tangible.’
Navigating the balance between psychological safety and high-performance teams presents its own dilemmas. ‘In practice, one often comes at the expense of the other. However, attention must be paid to both themes. ‘After all, psychological safety is crucial for team performance’. She explains: ‘Even in a results-driven organization, you can cultivate a culture where people are allowed to make mistakes and sometimes fall short of their goals. This often leads to insights that benefit the organization.’
Finally, Telleman points out the dilemma that leaders are expected to act promptly in cases of alleged inappropriate behavior. ‘They therefore quickly initiate external investigations when issues arise within the organization, hoping to prevent reputational damage. But maybe there is not that much going on, then you yourself might harm employees.’ And even when mistakes are made, there must be room for nuance. ‘Give employees a second chance, listen to their side of the story. It is not always black and white.’ According to Telleman, it is important to follow your own moral compass. ‘Even though it is challenging in a time where board members are sometimes harshly criticized by the media.’

Digital transition and organizational change
How should you act as a board member in an organization where toxic behavior has been accepted for years? Where leaders have acquired privileges which they will not willingly relinquish, and where employees have become accustomed to humiliating remarks, unpredictable behavior, and a culture of retribution? It is a devilish dilemma for Frederieke Leeflang, who took on the role of chair of the NPO in January 2022. Leeflang, who has a legal background, accepted the position of NPO CEO because she wanted to leverage her knowledge and experience in the public domain. She was tasked with guiding the NPO through a digital transition and organizational change. However, a year and a half on, her job proves to be more challenging than anticipated. Only ten days after her appointment as chair of the board, Leeflang faced the revelation of misconduct within the talent show ‘The Voice of Holland’ at the commercial broadcaster: employees were verbally abused, intimidated and humiliated.
‘I raised the question within the NPO and also with the broadcast board members whether this could happen within our organization. The answer was no, it does not happen here.’ Painfully, it turned out to be the opposite: toxic behavior had been occurring within the public broadcaster for years. Not only did the presenter of De Wereld Draait Door, Matthijs van Nieuwkerk, cross the line; TV personalities at Studio Sport and WNL did as well.
During the evening, Leeflang candidly shared how she navigates the storm of criticism that has arisen since she began advocating for a cultural change. And how intense she finds the stories shared by employees. ‘It is unimaginable that this could have been going on for years.’

Ineffective governance and supervision
According to Leeflang, the issues within the public broadcaster can be partly contributed to its organizational structure. ‘The Dutch Public Broadcaster (NPO) is an overarching body, encompassing 13 broadcasting organizations. Its mission is to create programs that are diverse, varied, reliable, independent, accessible to everyone, and of high quality.’ Annually, the NPO - for now - has a budget of 900 million euros. ‘With this, we manage programming, but we also invest in on-demand platforms and subtitling. The remaining financial resources are allocated to the broadcasters who produce programs with it.’
The NPO itself does not produce programs and, in principle, does not interfere with the content of the programs. ‘What complicates my role is that all 13 broadcasters are independent entities, each with their own association, management, and supervisory boards. I have no authority over them, but I am held accountable for their actions.’ Leeflang notes that there is not always effective governance and supervision within the public broadcaster. ‘There is no governance code similar to the Dutch Corporate Governance Code. Some board members have been in their positions for up to 20 years. Decisions about what and who appears on TV were often made in a non-transparent manner. That is unacceptable, considering it involves taxpayer money. We have a societal responsibility to manage this properly.’
After the revelations at De Wereld Draait Door, the NPO board ordered an external investigation into the boundary-crossing behavior on the popular talk show. The committee, led by former minister Martin van Rijn, published the report ‘Nothing seen, nothing heard, nothing done’. This report not only outlines the impact of psychological insecurity on employees but also serves as a valuable guide for necessary changes. ‘It offers practical guidelines for effective governance and supervision, good leadership, and employers' duty of care.’ According to Leeflang, the report is valuable not just for the NPO but for any organization. ‘Are the fundamental elements in place? What does a professional employee policy look like? Is there a strong succession planning, a confidential advisor, and attention to diversity and inclusion? It was clear that the NPO fell significantly short in all these areas.'
Subsequently, the NPO formulated an action plan. 'It states, for example, that broadcast directors can from now on only be appointed for a maximum of ten years. The plan also states that managers attend training courses on how to recognize and address unwanted behavior at the workplace.'

Change is needed
The fact that there is much wrong with the structure of the public system is not the whole story. ‘Ultimately, we as broadcast directors are responsible for how undesirable behavior was tolerated’, says Leeflang. ‘We are discussing a different style of leadership and how we can transform our organizations into a place where everyone enjoys working. This was not easy. Initially, the necessity and awareness were not always there. Ultimately, the broadcast directors themselves determine the culture within their organization. Prioritizing leadership training was not always at the forefront. The State Secretary for Culture and Media has asked all of us if we are capable of driving change. We all still need to make that happen.’
Leeflang does not always make herself popular within the public broadcaster by constantly advocating for change. ‘When you challenge privileges or break down silos, it always sparks resistance. And in Hilversum, that resistance can sometimes become very personal.’ How does she keep going? She has found a remedy for it: on bad days, she takes walks through the corridors of the Media Park, past passionate program makers. Then the motivation automatically returns. ‘We produce such wonderful programs.’
How does Leeflang prevent herself from being sucked into this toxic system? She has asked for the help of a coach. ‘My coach helps me to stay strong in a landscape filled with political power games. I am no stranger to challenges, but the pressure is immense. There is criticism not only within the organization. As a public figure, I also face all sorts of insults through traditional and social media. It takes a toll. Even I can feel immense pressure in the chaos.’ Leeflang considers herself fortunate to have ‘an extremely good team’ of fellow board members. ‘We hold up mirrors to each other and provide mental support when needed. That is incredibly important.’

Unfavorable political climate
Leeflang remains optimistic. ‘Important steps have been made. We are in the process of implementing our action plan. The Media Authority is working closely with us. Mariëtte Hamer, the independent government commissioner for sexual misconduct, is also lending a hand. In addition, new board members have now taken office or are on the way, and the digital transition is slowly taking shape.’
At the same time, Leeflang cannot control everything. She is concerned about the unfavorable political climate. The PVV, the largest political party now, wants to abolish public broadcasting. ‘Abolishing public broadcasting is detrimental to democracy’, Leeflang asserts. ‘A strong, politically and commercially independent broadcaster is essential in a democratic constitutional state.’
The NPO chair explains that it would not happen that fast, but she does expect significant changes to the public broadcasting system. ‘Other political parties believe the NPO should operate with a reduced budget. The public broadcaster truly needs to become future-proof and adapt to the current media consumption habits of the audience. It is an enormous challenge to simultaneously shape the public broadcaster in a way that psychological safety becomes a given everywhere in the workplace.’