A bad culture will definitely slow down any business and make it harder to reach goals and hit performance benchmarks. But that’s not the real problem. A toxic culture can ruin a person’s life. Nine out of 10 American workers, about 130 million people, go home every day and feel like they work for an organization that does not listen to or care about them. Unfortunately, research also found that the number of heart attacks increases by 20 percent on Monday morning. Culture is not a touch anxiety that only Silicon Valley startups can afford. It is essential for your health and well-being. And luckily you can do something about it.
By using The Butterfly Impact as our lens, we know that a bad workplace culture will inevitably infect every person’s life outside of work as well. It only gets worse if your culture is really toxic or completely dysfunctional. If you believe this is the responsibility of management, you are partially right. The ability to create and promote a great culture so that people can thrive is one of the best traits of great leaders. Waiting for someone else to fix it, however, leads to a feeling of powerlessness. You can do more than sit back and complain about the culture of your workplace. Again, your health and well-being are at stake.
Here’s the secret: You are the culture.
Everything you do at work, any interaction, conversation, email, chat message, smile, laugh, sigh, roll your eyes, presentation, meeting invitation and video calls 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 you want, instead of the culture you have.
“‘When I was younger, I felt less empowered to influence culture,'” says Elaine Helm, a Seattle-based public relations executive. “I did not really try to balance the long hours and stress with a certain degree of self-care. When you are in the early part of your career, you feel that you have less influence. But I have learned that leadership, no matter what role you are in, modeling your behavior, your interactions and building that culture piece by piece.People notice and start adopting it and making it a part of how they behave.
“There’s a lot you can do from day to day that will help you feel better about what you’re doing, instead of bringing stress home.”
Every individual can influence the culture of the workplace, for better or worse. I remember a few years ago leading a strategy workshop for a client company where I led a discussion and brainstorming session in the executive conference room with about 20 executives from the organization. I thought the session went really well and ended with some specific action steps to get the team forward. One, I respect, said with a laugh, a partial smile, and raised eyebrows, “Too bad that’s not how things are done here.” Ouch. Most of the participants in the meeting had signed up at that time, so only me and two other people made a chat after the meeting. The other person in the room chuckled in agreement. I heard this type of comment often from this organization during the over two years I had consulted there. This time, however, it hit differently, so I replied:
“You know, every time you say that, you maintain exactly the type of culture you are currently complaining about. You describe a part of the culture that should be in the past, but every time you mention it, you draw it into the present and help move it forward. It does not help.”
Once I had built trust, shown empathy and (hopefully) proved that I knew what I was talking about, my counterpart landed softly and caused a moment of pause. The two people who stayed in the room looked to the side for a few seconds, considered this idea, then looked back at me and nodded. ‘It’s true,’ they both said, ‘but…’ I do not remember exactly where the next sentence went, but I’m pretty sure it was aimed at someone else. Another of the stupid things our brains do is to draw conclusions and blame other people before they understand the context of a given situation.
Just as surely as culture eats strategy, guilt kills trust.
Have you ever driven down the road and been forced to turn to the side or brake due to another driver? Of course we have all been there. If your brain immediately thought, “What a fool!” then you experienced what psychologists call blame bias. Instead of first considering the surrounding circumstances that may have led to the actions of the other driver, we jump to the conclusion that they are bad and we are good. What if the other driver did not make the turn because an old lady was using the pedestrian crossing? Who’s the idiot now?
Prejudice about guilt affects our interactions in the workplace more than we realize. Of course, our minds blame people – without context, without empathy, without understanding. And research has found that we are more likely to believe that other people are more likely to be blamed for bias than we are. When blame bias infects a workplace, it creates drama, assumptions, and fear. It destroys trust. Then all that stress and anxiety goes home with us and also infects our personal lives.
Take a moment and think about all the people you interact with every day in your job. Try to wrap your head around all the times that may come up and how each instance becomes part of your culture. A big part of your culture.
Why did someone miss her deadline? Because she’s a gossip. Why was the work sloppy? For he is not wise. Why did that leader not show up for the meeting he convened on time? Because he is an indifferent person and his mother did not hold him enough.
“Once you are aware of the guilt bias, you will see it everywhere in your life,” Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi wrote in Primed to Perform. “The most powerful personal antidote is to come up with five alternative explanations for the behavior that do not assume a problem with the person.”
McGregor and Doshi recommend the REAP model for feedback to start the hard work of “blaming your life”:
- REMEMBER: Assume positive intentions
- EXPLAIN: Think of five scenarios that could explain why
- ASK: Start by listening to the other person
- PLAN: Identify the cause and make a plan together
“We invest all possible energy in hiring the right people, and then underestimate the influence of our culture when they arrive,” the authors continue.
The question for most people, however, is what can be done to influence the culture in which one works. First, do not complain about the culture. Start defending it instead, even when it’s hard. All too often, the faceless company or a stand-in phrase like this place facades into a complaint that is actually meant for a person. A business or building cannot engage in working through a problem, but a person can. Mining for conflict, as Lencioni recommended in the previous chapter, and building trust are powerful tools for building a positive culture. And addressing the blame bias that affects us all.
Gang talk and side conversations undermine an organization’s culture. “Meeting after meeting”, as it is called in some workplaces, is where people openly share their real reservations about a leader’s new vision. “It’s never going to happen here” is an example of how culture eats strategy for lunch. As Brene ‘Brown has mentioned many times in his Dare to Lead podcast about his own organization, “we talk to people, not people.”
These opposing views should instead be part of the conference room discussion. It’s so simple, yet so powerful. My for dissent, ask unpleasant questions, say tough things. If an entire organization had this ability, think about how much healthier the culture would be.
I have started leading workshops to help people practice these skills in a safe space. It can help alleviate the fears that many of us have, which cause us to avoid conflicts at all costs.
If you work in a culture where it seems risky to speak up in a meeting, if you can not speak the truth to power in an open forum, then focus your attention on building your relationship with your supervisor directly outside the meetings. The stronger your direct relationship with the boss is, the more likely it will be for both of you to serve as allies for each other during the big meetings.
“Do people trust each other?” says Sharon Prill. “If they do, it opens up so many avenues.”
You can do more to influence the culture in which you work, but it takes courage and strength. How to get started:
To make it happen
If you have ever wished things were different where you work, take a moment and think that intention through. Then take a few minutes and put the pen on paper (or your fingers on the keyboard). Make a list of roses and thorns:
- Document what you like (praise) and dislike (thorns) about the way your team and organization work.
- Circle the possibilities: Identify the items on your list that you can directly control or potentially influence.
- Start with one: Which of all the options you have captured would be the easiest to trade on? Do it.
- Recognize where the bias of guilt negatively affects your personal relationships in the workplace, and use the REAP model to “blame your life.”
- Start defending the culture when colleagues blame “this place” or “that team” and help them understand how they contribute to the culture they are complaining about.
If you have a really awful boss, there is definitely a limit to how much you can move the needle. (We will explore “managing up” in the next chapter.) However, it is still possible to own what you can and do your part to steer culture in a new direction.
This is an excerpt from The Butterfly Impact: Resilience, Resets and Ripples, the new Amazon best-selling book by Mark Briggs. A full-scale study of work-life balance, the book produces a surprisingly simple framework of small, meaningful actions that create a ripple effect that affects everyone in your world. Graphic illustrations (including above) provided by Seattle-based Killer Visual Strategies. More information about The Butterfly Impact at www.butterfly-impact.com.