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Challenging toxic cultures – the role of Investigative Review



Reports in just the last few months at the Bartlett School of Architecture, at Macmillan Cancer Support and at Amnesty International have shone further light on the way toxic, abusive and dysfunctional cultures can cause considerable hurt to individuals, inhibit good working relationships and damage organisational reputation. And a recent report from the British Army about how rife sexual harassment is, has confirmed how deeply embedded such cultures can be.


In B3sixty’s work on workplace investigation and dispute resolution we have been aware for a long time that wider and deeper negative cultures exist, whether at team, department, or whole organization level. As a result, we have been developing a response that can both understand the causes and consequences of such a culture and identify what practical steps can be taken to effect necessary change.


We have come to call this approach Investigative Review, bringing together investigative, organizational development and project management techniques. The work we have done in Higher Education, in the NHS and the Private Sector shows that toxic cultures are complex. The issues will vary, and they are often deeply embedded. Particular features in our reviews have been the existence in some instances of a “clique” of staff whose bullying behaviour was a means of retaining control, and the unwillingness of the organization in the past to take a comprehensive approach to address the problems.


Investigative Review takes a “deep dive” into the problem, understanding the background and context, engaging staff and stakeholders in telling their stories, piecing together the evidence, and drawing together the key issues in a way that allows for practical change. Commitment on the part of senior management has been vital in ensuring that an implementation plan is drawn up and given full support and resources to get the job done.