A crappy culture is sure to slow any business down and make it harder to hit goals and hit performance benchmarks. But that’s not the real problem. A toxic culture can ruin a person’s life. Nine in 10 American workers, about 130 million people, go home every day feeling like they work for an organization that doesn’t listen to them or care about them. Unfortunately, research has also shown that the heart attack rate rose 20 percent on Monday morning. Culture is not a delicate niceness that only startups from Silicon Valley can afford. It is important to your health and wellbeing. And luckily, there is something you can do about it.
When we use The Butterfly Impact as our lens, we know that a bad workplace culture inevitably affects everyone’s life outside of work. It only gets worse when your culture is really toxic or completely dysfunctional. If you think this is management’s responsibility, you are partly right. The ability to create and nurture a great culture so that people can thrive is one of the best qualities of great leaders. However, waiting for someone else to fix it leaves you feeling powerless. There is more you can do than sit back and complain about the culture in your workplace. Here, too, your health and wellbeing are at stake.
Here’s the secret: you are the culture.
Everything you do at work, every interaction, conversation, email, chat message, smile, laugh, sigh, eye rolling, presentation, meeting invitation, and video calling form part of the culture in which you work. Once you understand and accept this reality – and this power – you can help build the culture that you want rather than the culture that you have.
“‘When I was younger I felt less empowered to influence culture,” said Elaine Helm, a Seattle public relations manager. At the beginning of your career, you feel like you have less influence. But I’ve learned that in every role you find yourself in, you model your behavior and your interactions and build that culture little by little. People notice it and start taking it over and making it part of their behavior.
“There is a lot you can do every day to feel better about what you are doing instead of bringing stress home.”
Each individual can influence work culture for better or for worse. I remember leading a strategy workshop for a client company a few years ago and leading a discussion and brainstorming session in the executive conference room with about 20 executives from the company. I found the session very good and ended with some concrete action to move the team forward. Someone I respect said with a laugh, a partial smile, and raised eyebrows, “It’s a shame this isn’t done here.” Ouch. Most of the people in the meeting had signed out by then, so it was just me and two other people having a chat after the meeting. The other person in the room giggled in agreement. I have heard this type of comment often at this organization in the more than two years that I have been advising there. This time it hit differently, so I countered:
“You know, every time you say that, you’re immortalizing the very kind of culture you’re complaining about. You describe a part of the culture that should be a thing of the past, but every time you mention it, you pull it into the present and help move it forward. It does not help.”
Since I had built trust, shown empathy, and (hopefully) demonstrated that I knew what I was talking about, my counterpoint landed softly and provided a moment of pause. The two people who stayed in the room looked to the side for a few seconds, processed this idea, then looked back at me and nodded. “That’s right,” both said, “But …” I don’t remember exactly where the next sentence led, but I’m pretty sure that it was aimed at someone else. Another of the stupid things our brains do is jump to conclusions and blame other people before it understands the context of a particular situation.
As surely as culture eats strategy, guilt kills trust.
Have you ever driven on the road and had to swerve to the side or hit the brakes because of another driver? Of course we were all there. If your brain immediately thought, “What an idiot!” then you experienced what psychologists call blame. Rather than first considering the environmental conditions that may have led to the other driver’s actions, we conclude that they are bad and we are good. What if the other driver didn’t turn because an old lady was using the zebra crossing? Who’s the idiot now?
Placement of blame affects our interactions in the workplace more than we realize. Our minds, of course, blame people – without context, without empathy, without understanding. And research has shown that we tend to believe that other people are more biased than we are. When finger pointing infects a workplace it creates drama, guesswork, and fear. It destroys trust. Then all the stress and fear goes home with us and infects our private life as well.
Take a moment to think about all of the people you interact with on a daily basis in your job. Try to roll your head about how often blame prejudice pops up and how each instance, taken together, becomes part of your culture. A big part of your culture.
Why did someone miss their deadline? Because she’s a slacker. Why was the work sloppy? Because he’s not smart. Why didn’t this manager show up on time for the meeting he called? Because he’s an indifferent person and his mother didn’t hold him enough.
“Once you understand the blame bias, you will see it all over your life,” wrote Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi in Primed to Perform. “The strongest personal antidote is to find five alternative explanations for the behavior that do not assume a problem with the person.”
McGregor and Doshi recommend the REAP feedback model to begin the hard work of “deblaming your life”:
- Remember: Assume a positive intention
- EXPLAIN: Think of five scenarios that might explain why
- QUESTIONS: Start by listening to the other person
- PLAN: Identify the cause and create a plan together
“We put a lot of energy into hiring the right people and then underestimate the impact of our culture as soon as they arrive,” the authors continue.
However, for most people the question that arises is what can you do to influence the culture in which you work? First, stop complaining about the culture. Instead, start defending it, even if it’s difficult. Far too often the faceless society or a substitute phrase like this place are facades to a complaint that is actually directed at a person. A company or building cannot join you in handling a problem, but one person can. Searching for conflict, as Lencioni recommended in the previous chapter, and building trust are effective tools for building a positive culture. And address the blame bias that affects us all.
Corridor chatter and side conversations undermine corporate culture. “The meeting after the meeting”, as it is called in some workplaces, is the place where people openly express their real reservations about the new vision of a manager. “That will never happen here” is an example of how the culture eats lunch strategy. As Brene ‘Brown often mentioned in her Dare to Lead podcast about her own organization, “we talk to people, not about people”.
Instead, these opposing viewpoints need to be part of the discussion in the conference room. It’s so simple and yet so powerful. Mine for dissenting opinions, asking awkward questions, saying hard things. If an entire organization had this ability, think about how much healthier the culture would be.
I started running workshops to help people practice these skills in a safe space. It can help alleviate the fear many of us have that drives us to avoid conflict at all costs.
If you work in a culture where it seems risky to speak up in a meeting when you can’t tell the truth in an open forum, then focus on building your relationship with your manager just outside of the meeting. The stronger your direct relationship with the boss, the more likely the two of you will serve as allies for each other during large meetings.
“Do people trust each other?” says Sharon Prill. “When they do, it opens so many avenues.”
You can do more to influence the culture in which you work, but it takes courage and effort. How to start:
Make it happen
If you’ve ever wished that things were different in your workplace, take a moment and think about that intention. Then take a few minutes to put the pen on the paper (or your fingers on the keyboard). Make a list of roses and thorns:
- Document what you like (roses) and what you don’t (thorns) about the way your team and organization work.
- Circle the possibilities: Identify the items on your list that you have direct control or potential influence.
- Start with one: Of all the possibilities you captured, which would be the easiest to implement? Do that.
- Recognize where the blame bias negatively affects your personal relationships at work and use the REAP model to “excuse your life”.
- Start by defending the culture when employees accuse “this place” or “this team” and help them understand how they are contributing to the culture they are complaining about.
When you have a really terrible boss, there is definitely a limit to how much you can move the needle. (We’ll get to the topic of “building” in the next chapter.) However, it is still possible to own what you can and do your part in turning culture in a new direction.
This is an excerpt from The Butterfly Impact: Resilience, Resets and Ripples, the new one Amazon bestseller Book by Mark Briggs. The book is a comprehensive exploration of work-life balance and offers a surprisingly simple framework of small, meaningful actions that create a ripple effect that touches everyone in your world. Graphic illustrations (including the above) of Seattle based Killer visual strategies. More information about The Butterfly Impact at www.butterfly-impact.com.