Perhaps, aligned to the Marvel universe, the media (especially social media) loves a villain. They’d have us believe that there are a plethora of villains and villainous stereotypes.

Added to that, if we believe all we read, villains have a particular gender, race, background, and hierarchical role in an organisation.

If only it that was simple.

While every story may need a villain, when it comes to organisational culture, they’re rarer than you think and even harder to spot.

What is a real villain?

“A character of evil actions or motives, important to the story”

In the workplace, this is a character that intentionally does bad.

Their actions are indicative of their inherent badness.

From our work looking at many cultures and situations, we rarely see a true villain.

People are often framed that way for ‘the good of the story’. They’re required to be evil to make the narrative work.

A real villain is someone whose intent and actions hurt or limit others, usually for their own benefit. It can be harassment, discrimination, bullying, gaslighting, or appalling behaviour.

The intent can be as Machiavellian as serious strategic gain, as narcissistic as promoting self-interest, or as simple as protecting self from personal embarrassment or pain.

Whichever it is, the motivation is to hurt someone else.

What should happen to Villains?

There’s a reason there are lot of good laws around not hurting others at work.

When you find someone intentionally doing that, you should immediately put space between them and your team or organisation.

What sometimes looks like a villain, but is not?

In reality, what is described as a villain, is often the result of something quite different.

The big three are:

  • Incompetence
  • Capacity
  • Mistakes

Incompetance may be the the outcome of a lack of experience or expertise, or even a lack of confidence to step up and do what needs to be done.

Limited capacity can lead to not knowing, or not having all the information. In some cases, this can be intentionally evasive, but more often it’s a lack of connection or availability of time, to gain a broader perspective, and to listen those who may actually understand what is going on.

A bad action may be ill-intended, but it is often a mistake. It is the outcome of the fallible reality of the human condition.

Are there consequences to these poor choices? Of course.

But the consequences should also match the intent.

If the intent is good, but the outcome is bad, that’s worth considering that in any decision on consequences.

How do we spot the difference?

We debated long and hard on whether to add this. After all, if we talk to this, are we not giving away trade secrets? Do villains read this and adjust their strategy?

On weight, we decided this was helpful information for most;—not perfect or fool-proof information, but helpful.

If the true villains adjust their strategy and own their behaviour, that’s not a bad outcome either.

Our experience is that true villains, never own their actions.

Instead, you hear them create a self-narrative that describes how everyone else got it wrong.
They’re smarter than everyone, critical of everyone, dismissive of most, and rarely self-reflective on their own mistakes or impact. Or, if they are reflective, they’re certainly not keen for you to know. They’re certainly not open to changing, and would rather describe why it wasn’t theirs to be accountable for.

On the other hand, fallible people who have made a mistake, will almost always own it. They may want to explain why, or describe special circumstances, but they’re conscious of needing to change, learn or grow.

Maybe the simplest question to start with is, “Given what happened, is there anything you’d do differently?” Alternatively, the question might be, “Why do you think you did this?” to indicate whether there’s an appetite for self-reflection and growth.

Sometimes, the test of ill-intent is as simple as checking on the receptivity to the very concept of improvement. Good people will always want to do better, particularly when they’ve got it wrong.

What does the data say?

When we look at all the data we have from culture reviews, there are very few genuine villains, and they’re not easy to spot by gender, hierarchy, race or any other aspect of identity. Contrary to the stereotypes, there is no type.

They are no more likely to be a particular gender (it’s very evenly distributed), or a particular cultural group (again, pretty evenly distributed), and hierarchically, they’re just as likely to be in the middle or even the bottom as the top.

And each person is an individual. Examples to stretch the stereotypes a little:

  • An EA deliberately left one Exec off every meeting invite, then invited them 5 minutes after the meeting had started so the person always arrived rushed, late, and looking unprofessional.
  • A person who never met a quality standard or a dead-line, even those self-set, across a series of different organisations. Demonstrating a pattern of poor behaviour, that led to no one being able to work with them. There were multiple resignations from peers but each time, they claimed an ‘unfairness from others’ to change the narrative and divert attention.
  • A woman who, as performance faltered, claimed bullying against three bosses in a row – all women. Each time made the complaints only informally so they could never be investigated, reviewed, or defended.
  • A leader who fell short on both confidence and the required standard, and then bullied and undermined their own team, even adjusting meeting minutes to remove any examples or specifics, so the narrative held strong.
  • An executive who constantly criticised poor culture in peers’ businesses, with detailed stories of shortfalls, all the while holding responsibility for more than 50% of the Speak-Up hotline complaints directly. As the data and stories unfolded, it was the second organisation where this was the case.

Every storyteller – each a serial villain – wove elaborate stories of others’ shortfalls, never owning a stitch of accountability, or seeking to improve. The collateral damage all around them was substantial and painful. To this day, most still frame the issue as ‘someone else’s’.

The reality of most culture stories

When we look at cultures, it’s true that bad things happen, mistakes are made and fallibility is real.

But as we ask the question of ‘why’, it is not always a villain.

If we assume that most of us are essentially good – doing our best, open to doing better, and always being respectful that the person next to us is doing the same – we need to consider that sometimes people are imperfect, rather than bad.

And the advice for looking deeply at culture:

Never assume.

Always be open.

Always be empathetic and hear their perspective.

Asking why? alongside the behaviour.

Seek multiple perspectives before believing one compelling story.

Looking for repeated patterns of behaviour over time.

Be open to villains existing, but only when fallibility, in the form of competence, mistakes, confidence, and capacity, have all been ruled out. Think of it as a little kindness without any naivety.

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