It’s often hard to recognize when your organization needs an overhaul. However, culture change is often needed to better the organization and prevent toxicity from stewing. Today’s guest is Pete Havel, a leading speaker, trainer, and consultant on workplace culture, leadership, and office politics. Recognized as an authority on toxic workplaces with his latest book, The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Culture, Pete braved potential backlash to offer insight on how you can deal with toxic people in the workplace. With recent events such as the untimely death of George Floyd, more eyes are looking into the culture surrounding police departments. Join in as Dr. Kevin Sansberry and Pete discuss potential solutions and blind spots not only for the department but employees as well.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
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KEVRA: The Culture Company is specifically designed and optimized for leaders who are experiencing turnover, low employee morale, and seek to move the needle further with their initiatives. Our organizational culture and inclusion strategies are a leading consulting service that helps you gain increased retention, increased productivity, and a reputation as an inclusive organization, and unlike competitors, our services are underpinned with unique research and experience in the field of toxic organizational culture and how to create inclusive environments that stick.
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How To Kick Off Organizational Culture Change in Police Departments With Pete Havel
In this episode, we have Pete Havel. How are you?
Kevin, thanks for having me on. I’m doing great.
I want to have this conversation because I love your background and being able to hear your experience as it relates to working in police departments and other first-line responders, which is very high stress. I’d love to hear some of the work you’ve been working on, techniques and tactics that you’ve devised that can help our readers and leaders that follow the show. Before we get to that, I want to hear a little bit about you. Tell us about who you are and how you got into the work.
Long story but I’ll be making it short. I’ve got to admit. By writing a book, apparently, you get called an authority. I’m an authority on toxic workplaces, which is about the last thing I would’ve ever mapped out for my life. After having spent a career in politics, as a lobbyist, had some phenomenal jobs and some great bosses, I walked into the worst, most toxic culture imaginable. When I spoke up, shared my values and pointed out to the organization some real dangers that they had within it, I found myself at a job that I have learned a lot about what can go right and go wrong within cultures so here I have.
Part of the experience that you had, was that a turning point for you in your career that set you up?
It was and I didn’t know it at the time. I knew what I was dealing with, which was I had an organization that when I spoke up, threatened me. They took me from a legal standpoint. They terminated me and in the words of somebody within the organization at that time, “Your children’s children are going to be paying your legal fees if you had to reword about what you experienced here.” I took that threat seriously.
Frankly, from a job search standpoint, it made my life difficult. It was very much a turning point for me. I ended up writing a book called The Arsonist in the Office, which put me in a position to be able to speak and have a platform. Be able to talk about, “I understand what can go right and go wrong. Depending upon what the leadership’s like and what values are lived by.” I learned that there are great places to work and some horrendous places to work. It’s given me a real passion for helping those cultures that need some help.
How I describe it to people is the work that we do allows us to be the voice for those who are voiceless in a way because a lot of people are in these environments whether the threat happens after you leave, you get terminated or while you’re still there, there is that threat of some sort and so people don’t speak up, especially when they probably should. That’s the moral thing to do.
These are the signals that get them. A lot of them are never on paper. You don’t have like, “Here’s what happens if you do X, Y and Z.” It’s understood, which is more subtle. It creeps into how people behave. You’ve got good people in probably every other aspect of their jobs who are molded and shaped in some bad ways within their workplaces because they learn that the organization has some horrendous expectations for what is right and wrong.
Those subtle signals are almost worse than if they were flat-out toxic overtly. Those subtle signals tend to gas you in a way. You tend to think like, “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my moral beacon is off. Maybe the organization is right.” Individuals may engage in behavior that they do not necessarily would do outside of work because they want to protect their job. They think about the family they have to feed and the bills they have to pay. That subtleness is quite a bit more dangerous because it gets people at a psychological level.
It creates the new normal and you can look at it as, “This is what the company does. That makes them right. They’re paying me. I’m here. I’m good so they must be good.” Not necessarily.
That happens to a lot of people. It makes you wonder when you look at the research behind whistleblower behavior. They ask people, “Why didn’t you speak up?” You get that bystander effect. “I didn’t know it was wrong. I didn’t feel like it was wrong.” Whereas if you would’ve asked them probably when they first started or before they got that job, they would’ve known flatout it was wrong but they drank the Kool-Aid, metaphorically speaking. They engage in unethical behavior at a time and that’s interesting.
It’s an easier way to ease your way to live if you can rationalize things.It’s a whole lot easier to find a new job if you’ve got a job. Click To Tweet
There are people probably reading this episode who are in a culture like this. They might be thinking about leaving their job or taking that big step but then that wall creeps in. “What if?” What would you say to somebody in that position who is teetering on that decision?
A few things. One, take a deep breath. Take a moment to think through what you’re doing. Understand a few things. Don’t rush. That’s the first initial step. The second step is making a plan for an exit. It’s a whole lot easier to find a new job if you’ve got a job. You don’t want to be walking into your next interview and they say, “Why did you leave your last employer?” You’ve either got rage in your heart of wanting to talk about those jobs and what you’ve been dealing with or you can walk in there and they’re like, “You’re leaving X, Y and Z company. Why are you leaving?” “I’ve been there a while and it’s the right time to move.” Your job looks great but you’re not going to have the focus on your departure.
Also, you want to probably do a few different things. One, you want to rack up some references that are going to be positive. You want to go out on a good tone if you can. The other part of it is if you need to acquire some new skills to get the next job to be a great one, maybe pick up those skills on your current employer’s time and maybe even off their budget lines to get walked in there. If you’re in a lousy situation, don’t put yourself in one where you’re not sure about it, except for maybe a few different things. One, if your physical health is breaking down. You’re feeling your heart beating out of your chest at times. You’re drinking heavily or these types of things. Substances are creeping in to cope.
Psychological saving type of thing, if you’re at that breaking point, go. Finally, if you are at the point where you’ve got concerned about your physical safety. I hear these stories from time to time of something crazy going on within your workplace. You feel unsafe and the trust is gone from your organization. Get out if you have to but if you don’t have to, methodically go through the process and get out on your own terms.
One of the things I appreciate hearing is there are a lot of things one can do before they decide to leave their job. The skills piece is something I want to highlight to save that as employees or leaders, we should always be skilling and looking for ways to learn things. Even if you’re in that bad environment, what are you learning from that bad environment? That can help you remain resilient while you’re looking for a new job. You can say, “I have access to this network. I can use this to gain more references while I’m still here.” That at least gives me something to do while I’m in the job market because the perfect job doesn’t fall into your lap a lot of times. You have to do the footwork.
We all have our blind spots. In the figurative sense, you need to think about whether you may have some things that are blind spots for you that are causing you to fall into certain jobs. Some of them, maybe, you’re not preparing well enough in interviews to know all the signs that you may want to look for. There are lots of things you can research on that. Do you put way too much trust in your organization? Are you going to take what the hiring manager is telling you at face value? Are you somebody that, frankly, looks past a lot of red flags in all parts of your life than into the job search and where you are subtly causing some of your own problems?
In my book, I talked about the journey I went through of having overconfidence about me being able to deal with anyone at any time in any situation. That was an irrational exuberance of bad thought because, in some circumstances, there are unwinnable wars. There are all sorts of times where it’s like, “Grab the parachute. Jump out of that plane and be glad you’ve got your safety.” It’s okay. You’re fighting another day. You are the winner there but if you don’t understand that, you’re going to be setting yourself up for failure and other circumstances.
Your book also talked about some of those warning signs that you saw while you were in that extremely bad or toxic environment. Tell the audience a little bit about that. What are some of the warning signs that you experienced?
Silence in meetings is one of them, the inability of leadership to focus on both the strengths and opportunities with an organization, which are great. Also, to deal with the threats. In the book, I talk about being called into the CEO’s office and told that my job was to partner with the person in the organization who had inflicted incredible harm to what the company wanted to do. They were more scared of the other things that employees might do to them at some point and so they kept them inside. Smart leadership is going to look at those threats, try and create an exit plan. They’re going to take the actions that leaders can take to deal with the problem in front of them. Not pun it to somebody else, put an employee or employees as a bulletproof vest between that toxic, destructive employee and the rest of the organization. Those decision-making processes are huge. How do they deal with conflict and challenges?
There’s another one I’ll throw out to you. Fifty-nine percent was found in a survey of people that say they’ve quit a job because of their manager. Sixty percent of managers say they’ve never been trained to manage, which means to lead and understand how to work with people. Those numbers match up pretty well. That’s the sad thing but it’s a sign of, does this organization takes those relationships seriously and training employees from the start to wearing the values? If the managers don’t understand the values and expectations of the organization, that entry-level or first step sure isn’t going to find that out. That’s a sign.
To your point about the survey, it’s almost like those who get promoted typically get promoted because of tenure or some work experience they might have. Not necessarily their ability to lead or manage people. Point blank, I always tell people, “If you had a great leader, I don’t care what industry you’re in.” I don’t want my manager to know all the stuff. I want my employees to know all the stuff. I want my manager to be there to manage. We put an over-reliance on perfection at the management level from a knowledge standpoint but not necessarily a relationship-building standpoint. That’s the problem in a lot of companies.
One of the signs I want to lift up to this question is coping. People don’t see coping as a sign that you might be in the wrong environment. When I say by coping, I mean like, “Are you engaging in alcoholic beverages to relax when you go home more than you typically do? Has that changed?” When you look at coping with these behaviors, you want to look at the delta and what has changed in what you do. Are you sleeping more because you don’t want to be awake? What are these changes in your behavior that might be overlooked? You might say, “I’m tired and stressed.” You never look up and say, “I’ve been tired and stressed for five years.” The messed-up thing is you see it when your hair is falling out or when you have stress-related body issues. That’s too late.In a survey, 59% of people say they’ve quit a job because of their manager, while 69% of managers say they’ve never been trained to manage. Click To Tweet
In my life, I ran for office years ago but I was also a consultant. Meaning, I helped other people. I could be able to tell you when a candidate was making a mistake on something but my own vision about what my own problems were as a candidate where I couldn’t see the forest from the trees. I didn’t have that perch from which to look. When you see a lot of those problems with somebody else, the drinking, hair loss and sleeping 24 hours a day, we say, “You got to get some off of that.” When it’s us, we make excuses.
We like to do like, “I’m taking care of my self-care. It’s self-care” “It’s not. You’re a little further than that.” “I’m sleeping because I’m pampering myself.” “You are depressed. Let’s be honest.” Some of the work that you do interests me. You help cultures. Some of the absolute worst on a planet based on the research and stuff that I’ve read about in your books and work is your work in police departments. You help organizations all across the country. How do you do what you do? What’s your general message as it relates to the work that you do there?
It is a huge blessing. Folks can read about my experience but it was a tough one, one that I came out with some scars at the time whether I knew it or not. One of the real success stories personally and I say it with pride is I learned some things. As I was writing my book, I thought, “I want to do this to help some people.” The great thing about writing a book is if you get some attention, you’re able to help some people on a broader scale. That’s what I get to do. In police culture, for instance, one of the strongest pros that’s like the two-edged sword is the culture that brings them together as a group in which you can look at as a team or family.
You can look at that culture in a bunch of different ways but there is a bond there. That can be very positive or destructive if it leads you in the wrong direction of looking at bad behavior within your family and saying, “We’ve got to put up with it because we’re family. We need them at the reunion for the next 25 years when we cash our paychecks.” There are some needs that they have there, structure and regulation but they have some weaknesses in terms of dealing with the problems. That’s one of the things I point them towards because my story is one of walking into an organization with leadership that was looking at their retirements and nothing else.
There are phenomenal police and fire department leaders throughout the country but there are those pockets. It’s an individual by the individual leader by leader kind of thing where people look at it as, “That culture thing is somebody else’s job. Hand it to HR.” We need to get the job done. When you’re not showing what your values and you’re not talking about what your expectations are, it makes every individual figure it out on their own.
That may work out well but it’s a gamble because a lot of us are broken in different ways, depending upon how folks are broken. You can get some horrific results if you’re not holding the line on those expectations in conduct. On the side of your brain, there’s so much stress. There’s a two-way street. Police leaders when I ask them offhand where their stress comes from, stay from inside the organization. It’s office politics. It’s dealing with the knuckleheads within their organization. It’s high.
The challenge for the communities is if that spills out into the streets, that causes huge problems. It’s fun when I do my training sessions. These guys are ready to go in case something goes on and they need to. This guy is decked out in his SWAT stuff all ready to go to an incident. In my training sessions, folks were armed because of their jobs. If that spills out not into against the community but somebody walks into that workplace PTSD type of situation and they’ve got somebody where a colleague doesn’t have their back, that is detached and unfocused, there are going to be huge problems.
Incidents will take place that destroys reputations, careers, all these things. That can be stopped if you spend some time uniting people around some good values and expectations of the organization. I talk about the need for that, how to do it, the risks of doing nothing, how to deal and have the tough conversations that need to take place to essentially get ready if you need. This is one of the biggest challenges of any leader and culture. Are you willing to remove that key person or top performer if they shattered the values of the organization? If you’re not, maybe leadership isn’t for you.
That is what people look at to see what your culture is. Sometimes subjectively, they’re not the top performer but if the person who has the clout doesn’t get reprimanded for their behaviors that are counter to our culture, if they’re able to remain in their position, everything else you do and say is going to be put through that lens. Like, “You’re telling me about attendance and you’re letting so-and-so over here do way worse things than I am because of X.” That’s what people see. That will break the trust immediately.
Even in your greatest cultures, the foundation is trust. Even in your family cultures, those are great too but you still have to have trust in that culture. That’s what separates the good family culture values from the less than good or toxic ones, which I see alive. When you talk about police culture or any frontline employees and the culture, things like that, I’m sure that the conversation of ethics comes up a lot especially as you talk about working with each other and internal. Talk to me about some of the pressures as to maybe why people don’t report things or why people cover for people in certain cultures? Why does that happen?
Some people know because they are in cultures that may have retaliation in place in some way or another that you’re seen as the word of the family versus team. You’re a team player. Part of being a team player means you protect members of your team at all times. Team players’ actions can hurt you on and off the field. Smart teams, no one to put a player on the waivers and let them go. The other thing you will see regularly is the pressure in organized labor environments.
Don’t get me wrong. Especially in the police and first responder, environments do have a role to play but there’s a misunderstanding or overcompensating when it comes to we protect each other. You want to protect the rights of each other. You want everybody to have a right hearing and all of these different things no matter when an accusation is made. If there’s overwhelming evidence and you’ve got nauseated and determinable levels of evidence that show this person not only goes against the value of the organization but goes against everything, your own members stand for.
The best thing you can do to represent your organization in the true sense is you say, “Good riddance.” We’re going to step aside here and join with the leadership on this one to say, “This is not who we are.” That can get clouded because you want to protect everybody but sometimes everybody does not mean everybody and it shouldn’t.
If we were all aligned behind this, the moral banner, your leadership would have to be aligned behind that first. That boils back to our previous conversation about who is getting promoted and placed in these roles because typically, the moral compass of the organization will follow the moral compass of whoever has the most power in the environment.
In the hearings process, you got to have trust between management and rank and file. Real quick, there’s a case up in Boston, Massachusetts, where a guy who was a patrolman for a long time rose through the ranks to become the Patrolmen Union president. A position of a lot of power in certain cities and big departments but there had been accusations made years ago that he was involved as being a child predator. Those accusations have reared their head again.
There were investigations that took place within the department. They found that there was enough to charge this guy but all those files disappeared. It has caused a lot of risks as you can imagine in a lot of different ways. Who was protecting him? What was going on with the department leadership? What were the systems in place? It’s a new level of mistrust. As you can only imagine, the rank and file are left with wonder, “Who can we trust in a situation like this?” That’s not the values that virtually anybody in that department would ever share but created a whole lot of problems that, frankly, betray everybody’s values.
There are a lot of those stories. Since I started the show, I get to talk to people from so many different industries, different parts of the world and things about this topic. In first responder police department organizations, there’s a lot that doesn’t make the news that things people are doing well related to how they’ve shifted their culture and how someone or a few leaders took a stand in their department. They turned some things around in such a short time related to community engagement, closing that gap between each other, rank and file leadership, the union and all that stuff. I’ve heard a lot of great stories from police officers in general related to that. From your experience, what are some best practices that you’ve heard in these environments that have worked that other departments can take advantage of?
In any organization, there’s always that distance between leadership and rank and file, which is huge in too many cultures. I live in Dallas. The new chief, Eddie Garcia, came in from San Jose, California. Unknown Texan’s mistress of Californians is pretty strong but in terms of a newcomer coming in, he had a lot of catch-ups to do. He has been using social media actively to post essentially the fact that he’s everywhere. When they’re arresting drug dealers, making raids and doing community event things, he is healing some of the wounds that were still open wounds from past actions that he’s had the department apologizing for, which has helped the various parts of the community.If the managers don’t understand the values and expectations of the organization, that entry-level sure isn’t going to find that out. Click To Tweet
There’s a community thing that certainly, as many awful things happened in 2020. We had the George Floyd awful death that occurred. Law enforcement made mistakes and they needed to evaluate what they did wrong but a lot of awful things can cause some good things to happen. One of the things we see is police departments reevaluating what they need to be doing out in the community, building those relationships, going especially into the fake community and other places where they know the value of law enforcement but haven’t always seen the walk behind the talk.
Here’s one other thing real fast internally and that is an example out of Grand Junction, Colorado. There’s a police chief there by the name of Doug Shoemaker. He talked about hearing some little bit of trash-talking, which always takes place in the police department. It’s a clubhouse atmosphere at times but he was catching a little bit of grief as he describes it from some of the folks on the graveyard shift, that 12:00 midnight to 8:00 shift.
They weren’t feeling the love. They hadn’t seen him in a long time and gently or not so gently giving them their thoughts on that. What did he do? He shows up. It cost him a few hours of sleep but he brought some donuts. He runs with a bunch of different officers that drive around the community. What’s that old saying about how much of life is showing up? He showed up, showed he cared and they remembered it. That’s a little thing that people could do.
I did some research on organizational culture, specifically in the police environment. I also talked to some officers and colleagues of mine that have done work on it. One of the things that you get agreement from people who do the work, research the work and own as ground, is the fact of if we go beyond using a rogue cop narrative and talk about that cop or police officer made a poor decision, we’re also going to take that lesson and look at our organizational culture too. You illustrated that with George Floyd and stuff. How can we also look in the mirror and learn from mistakes that may occur and rebuild our organizational culture in a proactive and productive way? I’ve seen that as the theme for this industry in particular. I appreciate you sharing those examples.
At any time, there’s something that goes wrong. There’s that time for reflection in, “Could we have done something differently?” At times, there is going to be that person in any organization that may be a product of the culture or may have been an awful person. Where you can figure that out, screen them out and make sure our people are going to be told we expect the best out of them, you got to do it. You simply have to because it’s good for all of them.
We need to repeat these norms throughout. The informal and formal norms, we need to be able to repeat these so that people can internalize them because that’s how a lot of people make decisions without their boss in the room. I don’t want my sergeant to be there. I don’t want my boss to be around me for me to operate in the behavior that we have to have. I want to be able to do that behind closed doors, onstage and offstage. You got to repeat those things so people internalize them. The last thing I want to touch on is your three-year journey doing the work that you do. I’m sure it comes with risk. Has it been worth it so far?
I’m going to give you two parts on this. Has it been worth it? Yes. I get to have an oversized impact on helping people at times around the world. I hear from countries I didn’t even know existed from people that say, “I read your book. It helped me in X, Y, Z part of my life or career.” That part is big what it has done for me. Talking about the purpose-driven life, there’s no better purpose than realizing that I’ve got the potential to make an impact on tens of thousands of people. I was in front of 200 police officers with chiefs from Dallas. ISD, Independent School District Police Department, said, “I not only want you to talk about leadership. I want you to talk to everybody in my department.” I get to make an impact in that way.
Here’s the other thing. I hear from people from time to time that is talking about being a whistleblower. I wasn’t. I never mentioned where my challenges came from and the individuals by name. There’s a certain stigma that comes with speaking up about anything, still. You may get some publicity but it doesn’t mean that all publicity is good no matter how much that saying is tossed around. There are a lot of risks professionally for doing that. I have been told I would never get hired into most traditional jobs because, at some point, HR is going to make a decision that a person who has strong thoughts of their own about the values of an organization may play well with some part of the hiring process.
At some point, somebody is going to say, “Even if this isn’t a red flag, it could be. We’re not going to take the risk on this person.” I’ve seen it. Frankly, I blew beyond it but that is there for those people as a cautionary tale. I’m not saying it’s not easy to be me. It’s not easy to be in some of the situations where if you’re looking for that next job, you’re going to be that person that speaks out in a high-profile way. For me, I could not be more blessed with where I am, what I’m doing and who I’m able to help but it’s no picnic.
Two individuals who have strong opinions and who are not afraid to voice their opinions, for organizations, that’s a red flag. They might’ve not been the right place for you in the first place. Find a line with people that you can work with. There is plenty of opportunities in this world to do good things. I appreciate being able to talk to you, Pete. This has been great.
I enjoyed it. Thanks for having me on.
What words of wisdom would you want to leave our audience with?
The big thing that I encourage everybody to do is understand your culture. Wherever you are, within your company, when there are those points of conflict or potential career problems, understand what happens, whether you were the victim or you were the person that may have seen something place. Understand that in some cases, you’re not going to be able to solve every situation. Having that perspective but understanding that before you’re in the middle of the situation, what’s going to happen if you take some action that’s going to help you along the way to succeed? That success may be moving on and maybe speaking up but know before you do what the end results are going to be. In that way, you know what you’re getting into.Understand your culture, wherever you are, within your company. Click To Tweet
Thank you very much. How can people reach you?
Pete, thank you for having this conversation with me. I enjoyed digging into police culture, organizational culture, values and whistleblowing. Thank you for reading.
- Pete Havel
- The Arsonist in the Office
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About Pete Havel
A lobbyist and political consultant teaching others how to be ethical and respectful sounds like a punchline, but Pete Havel is succeeding when it comes to bringing ethics, respect, and smart decision-making to the workplace.
He’s a former lobbyist for some of the nation’s largest business lobbying groups. He’s been a strategic communications executive who has dealt with companies in crisis and scandal. He’s protected the reputations of some of the biggest names in the country.
But then he took a wrong turn into the most toxic workplace imaginable. And when he was fired for speaking up against surreal behavior he faced, Havel wrote a book, The Arsonist in the Office, which has become the go-to source for taking on bad behavior in the workplace.
His former employer threatened to bury him if he dared to speak a word about his departure. So, he kept their identities anonymous and wrote Amazon’s #1 Hot New Release for Workplace Culture books.
The Arsonist in the Office has been called “The Bible for Municipal Managers”, “Dante’s 9th Circle of Hell Turned into a Sitcom” and “The Book that People Will Look Back at in 20 Years and Say it Changed the Workplace Forever.”
He’s been called the “Master of Workplace Disaster”, the “Guru of Office Politics” and the “The King of the Career Comeback.”
In addition to being an author, Pete’s a speaker in front of diverse audiences ranging from the Texas Chamber of Commerce Executives, Lockheed Martin, churches, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He’s a trainer, and consultant for organizations who need to fix their cultures, strengthen their leadership and values, and protect the lives and dignity of every employee.
Pete grew up in Massachusetts but has called Texas home for the last 25 years. He’s a proud graduate of Baylor University, and lives in Dallas with his wife Janie and daughter Reagan.