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The Fish Stinks from the Head: What It Means and How You Can Fix It

If you’re in the business sector, you’ve likely heard the phrase the fish stinks from the head. It’s business jargon that means that when a company is struggling, the likely cause comes from the leadership.

It originates from the idea that when a fish rots, the first area to decompose is the head. As time passes, the rot travels from the head to the rest of the body. We can see how this comparison translates to business: when there are issues in a company, it usually begins with the leadership. Sometimes this happens swiftly, other times it’s a slow decay. Regardless, failures in leadership will undoubtedly work their way down to the rest of the company and affect the entire organizational framework and culture.

The Consequences of Negativity in the Workplace

I’d like to share a real-world example of this in action. A particular business owner was having a hard time with gossip, negativity, and pessimism. They were struggling with maintaining control because there were no consequences. This rot was permeating through the staff and they were complaining to each other and eventually, raised concerns with me. After some investigation, we uncovered that the source of the rot was one particular leader in a management role. The hierarchy at the company didn’t want to lose her, but her rotten mindset was contagious and spread across the office. She was immune from consequences because nobody at the company would mention anything to her superiors. There was an overarching fear that they would get in trouble if they went over her head. After bringing it up with the leadership team, I uncovered that they knew about her behavior and the toxic incidents in the workplace. The leaders were cursed by inaction out of fear of losing her.

Change Starts at the Top: Breaking Bad Habits and Getting Back on Track

Leadership positions come with responsibilities that are sometimes tough to digest. As a leader, change must start with you. When you’re not actively cultivating a culture of respect and efficiency, other less desirable behaviors will be created to fill in the gaps. When these negative behaviors become habits, it becomes increasingly difficult to break them and make amends. Unhealthy behaviors like negativity, gossip, and pessimism can run rampant among your ranks and become deeply rooted. Once your team has gotten to this point, it can feel impossible at times to get them moving back onto the right track. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to do everything in your power to get them back there.

Good Leaders Make Tough Decisions

After talking with the leadership team at the example company and explaining this fact to them, they ultimately made the decision to terminate her. It took a while to make the decision, but when she was finally let go, the result was an instantaneous boost in productivity and positivity. Countless employees approached management with an appreciation for their decision. They thanked their leaders for being decisive and saving the company’s culture. The problem became so severe that one long-term marketing employee almost left the company. In situations that require tough decisions, leaders have no choice but to make a tough decision, and that’s exactly what they did while saving the company’s culture in the process.

Addressing toxic attitudes and negativity in the workplace might feel like bringing pessimism to the forefront of the company. You may think that shining a spotlight on issues in the shadows might inflame the problem and tarnish a culture you’ve worked so hard to build. The truth is that if you’re aware of a problem from a position of leadership, there’s a strong chance that this issue is much greater than it seems. What may appear like a small problem could be a giant elephant in the room. Even still, addressing negativity and ‘rot’ in the workplace is building culture, not depleting it. The key concern is that your team learns by example from their peers. If somebody in your organization is rotten and can behave that way, it indirectly gives others permission to behave that way as well. When owners or management are passive, at some point, employees will cut corners and push boundaries.

While working with leaders, I often hear questions like:

  • “How do I balance passivity with being too authoritative?”
  • “How can I actively address negativity and toxicity without being a micro-manager?”

Leadership Is a Complex Balancing Act

Like many things in life, leadership isn’t black and white. We have to make decisions based on a spectrum of possibilities. Leadership is just as much a balancing act as it is a management role.
The answer to these questions is expectation. For people to make a difference and impact through their work, they need clear expectations and metrics. If your team knows where the goal posts are and are aligned on the expected standard, their work will feel more fulfilling and they’ll be more motivated as a result. Our best work doesn’t come from a superior breathing down our neck. Instead, it comes from a personal drive to produce the best work possible because it’s expected of us. A good leader:

  1. Sets realistic expectations and achievable goals.
  2. Is unwavering in their adherence to these expectations and holds everyone accountable.
  3. Rewards their team handsomely for producing the work that everybody knows they’re capable of doing.

Build a Culture of Improvement by Setting Goals

Performance standards are important. Without them, company culture can never achieve the drive and motivation necessary to improve. Don’t worry if a team member doesn’t reach their goals and performs below expectations. Everybody makes mistakes, has life events that impact their work, or falls short just because. If their performance drops on a consistent basis or the entire team falls, then a conversation about individual roles is needed to find out what it’ll take to pick everyone back up again. How can a person get better if leadership takes a C- when they’re capable of A+ work? Think back to the naughty kid from school whose parents did nothing about it. Chances are that kid ended up in trouble later in life.

Unlock Your Team’s Full Potential Through Leadership

For leaders who are looking to improve (which should be every leader!), it starts with growing your skills when confronted with indifference or rot in the organization. Today’s workforce requires more creative solutions to leadership challenges and an expert in leadership development can help you start that process. While it may be true the fish stinks from the head, healing and growth also start at the top. You have a unique opportunity to shape and mold your business team into an efficiently functioning machine. Get started developing your leadership skills and contact me for a complimentary consultation. Let’s have a conversation and see where it goes. No matter what situation you and your team find yourselves in, there’s a solution that will work for you and everyone willing to reach their full potential. I can’t wait to hear from you!

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Julie Keyes
Julie Keyes

Founder & Owner at KeyeStrategies, LLC

Julie is a Certified Exit Planning Adviser and Value Growth Advisor with 30+ years of experience. She works with business owners who seek to understand and maximize their exit and critical transition options.