✨Once upon a time…
in a beautiful coaching session… arrived this LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE

I work in a toxic culture

– It took me 6 months to hire a talented marketing staff, she is really good at what she does and 2 months after starting, she got pregnant.
Hiring a young lady who got married the year before, pregnancy was expected, hence I do not mind and I’m happy for her.
– π‘Šβ„Žπ‘Žπ‘‘ 𝑖𝑠 π‘‘β„Žπ‘’ π‘β„Žπ‘Žπ‘™π‘™π‘’π‘›π‘”π‘’ π‘‘β„Žπ‘’π‘›?
– Well, I can cope with her absence. I’ve handled the workload all through the long recruiting period, so I can do that again.
What bothers me more is the negative talk about that.
Colleagues – even HR ones – keep saying that it’s a shame, a real bad timing, taking advantage of the situation, etc.
Ironically, they won’t be impacted but they do grumble.
– π»π‘œπ‘€ 𝑖𝑠 π‘‘β„Žπ‘Žπ‘‘ π‘Ž π‘β„Žπ‘Žπ‘™π‘™π‘’π‘›π‘”π‘’ π‘“π‘œπ‘Ÿ π‘¦π‘œπ‘’?
– I’m worried this will discourage her to return after her maternity leave. This is not the kind of culture I aspire to experience at work and she may not either. Yet, she is a real talent and I want to retain her.

Toxic culture do create dramatic ripple effects

Something we cannot take lightly indeed…
Toxic cultures are proven sources of resignations, burnouts, lasting resentments, conflicts and a huge waste of talents. People feel deeply hurt in such environments conflicting with their values, with what defines their identity and matters most to them.

Depending on the level of toxicity, our own influence and the level of time and effort we are willing to put into it, we need to chose wisely to leave as soon as possible so we don’t go into serious issues we cannot cope with or dedicate to change the culture into a healthy collaborative one where we can blossom.

Should we fight for our values then?

Though I’d love to answer this question with a passionate “Yes, of course” we also need to consider the energy needed to reach victory.

Sometimes we need to preserve ourselves first. If we are just coming back from maternity leave and struggling at home, if we are going through a painful divorce or have a dear one in palliative care, this would not necessarily have the enough energy to cope with more. In such cases, adding more mental load may just worsen the situation and self-care would be the priority.
This is why a young mother returning from maternity leave may not be best equipped to cope with a toxic culture while her leader could be in a better position to step up.

As a leader, standing for our values is most meaningful:

  • Asserting our values, we keep our self-esteem
  • Asserting our values, we create a culture where we perform well
  • Asserting our values, we attract and retain people who share them, performing well together, motivated to get lasting results


How did the leader elegantly solve this challenge?

The leader acted on both sides: the pregnant employee and her grumbling colleagues.

    To the pregnant employee she said

  • motherhood is not a waste of time, rather a most humbly leadership training with valuable lessons to apply both at home and at work
  • leadership comes with the ability to make unpopular decisions, deeply rooted in our values and beneficial on the long term. Other people may not value them at first glance, nor have supportive reactions, yet some will appreciate retrospectively
  • we want your pregnancy to be an inspiring role model as we need women to thrive here and therefore we will consciously make the needed adjustments

Here are the ones I can think of:

  • Please review your workload and check whether it is doable without doing any overtime, if not then come back to me and we would reallocate tasks differently
  • Do take a pause when needed rather than pushing yourself to the limits and bear with serious unpleasant consequences that could be damaging for all
  • You need to really document the processes and the status of your work as well as all information needed so that at any time someone can take over if needed. We need to test several times to ensure it properly works
  • Keep us posted on how you’re doing while you’re on maternity leave. You are and you will still be part of the team, so we care on how things evolve and we’re looking forward to see you with your little one
  • When you are back to work we will define together what is needed so that you have the flexibility to handle emergencies and the needed boundaries to cope with fixed daycare times, as well as ensuring continuity for business as usual.

To the grumbling people, she found some ways to flip the situation into positive thoughts by highlighting the benefits of the situation and ending with a question to trigger change in themselves too.
Here are a few examples

  • Becoming mother has been the most humbling leadership training I ever experienced.
    How was it for you? What did you learn that proved so valuable later on?
  • That situation gives us ample time to test our resilience as a team. Next time I’m on leave, I’ll be at peace knowing that I can really rely on a strong team.
    Do you already have a reliable and flexible team?
  • Young mothers are so busy on the first two years that they don’t have time to look for any other job unless we treat them really bad, so I’ve good chance to retain a great talent for 2 years.
    Not so easy to get great peopleΒ onboard,Β right?

And it worked… beautifully!

Wishing this leader and her teams to keep thriving in a culture aligned with their values!


With such challenge, what do you need to do?

Becoming a mother is a life-changing experience, yet delicate to handle.
The way we treat women at that time is something they remember for a life-time.
Doing it right from the 1st attempt reinforces and deepens the relationship too.

  • Leader as a strategic thinker
    In the short-term, we lose a resource for a few months, on the middle-term, we secure a resource for a few years.
    We also portray ourselves as a resilient and reliable leader, assertive on their values, thus enhancing our reputation and executive presence.
  • Leaders as a change driver
    Flipping situations as the leader did with grumping colleagues is a most valuable asset in our toolkit. That will serve in any change project!
  • Leaders as a role model
    Asserting our values helps our direct reports to do the same, thus embedding the kind of culture where all thrive. Worth giving a try!

Essential best practices

    • Connect 1st!
      Instinctively, we may have a negative reaction since it often comes as a surprise.
      Yet, no matter how many problems the situation could bring, chances are they are not the end of the world… they should not be the first thing a woman hears where sharing about her pregnancy.

      Congratulate her!
      Share her joy!
      Appreciate the courage it takes to endorse such a responsibility!
    • Dedicate a specific meeting
      Once you have congratulate her, take appointment to discuss later on the consequences together.
      That will give time to prepare with needed information on the consequences and deliver the messages in a composed manner.
    • Address the tasks/processes changes for all stakeholders
      What do we need to adjust for the pregnant lady?
      What precautions do we need?
      (The last thing you want is to be associated to the death of a baby because you did or did not do something. People would remember!)
      What do we need to adjust for her colleagues?
      For other people across the organization? Outside the organization?
      How robust are our processes to take over the BAU on the spot? What do we need to secure better?
      What is fundamental before she leaves, during her absence and when she returns?

      Fatigue is a typical reality of pregnancy as well as potential health issues.
      Increased sense of responsibility and willingness to ensure least impact for others also.

    • Address the emotional change for all stakeholders
      – Reflect on the benefits to really embrace them
      What are the short-term benefits?
      transparency on the scope and tasks completed, enhance teamwork, stronger documentation and flexibility, rationalization of tasks, better planning, etc.
      What are the middle-term benefits?
      people retention, supportive culture, attracting aligned people, enhanced motivation, stronger collaboration, etc.
      – Adopt a caring and fair attitude
      What concerns does the pregnant lady have?
      What concerns do other team members have?
      What concerns do other stakeholders have?
      How could they address them in a positive and constructive way?
      – Affirm essential values
      Raising the communication on the values level where we get the easiest alignment before diving into specifics

      What if we don’t cover these steps or only partially?

      We risk to lose a talent and the majority of other talents who would identify with her situation. We risk to face lower performance, disengagement and best team members taking the next opportunity to leave. And reputation damaging our career instead of propelling it.

      Find an ally

      We rarely have enough distance to observe ourselves and challenge our thought process enough. When we face such challenge, I kindly recommend to discuss these steps with a trusted mentor or book a coaching session to gain the clarity, retrieve the courage needed and feel empowered to take action.

      Practice with other leadership challenges…

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      Marianne Dupuis, Leadership CoachAbout the Author
      Marianne Dupuis
      Coached 900+ global leaders to thrive with multicultural teams.
      Her secret recipe: easy connection with leaders, joy in cultural diversity, trust in humanity and a slice of irreverence.
      “Pragmatic and direct, simple and flexible, committed and caring” they say!

      Give her a call, who knows? You may even succeed too πŸ˜‰



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