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Stuck in a Bad Work Culture? 6 Ways to Make it Better

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Several years ago I left a job I loved with a team of people that I adored to pursue an opportunity that looked like an amazing next step for me. The new role would stretch me and I was certain I would grow from the challenge. While I learned a lot, it was not the exciting endeavor that I had dreamed of. It turned out to be one of the most difficult seasons of my career. The work itself wasn’t the issue. The fact that my husband and I had relocated and were adjusting to a new community, while challenging, wasn’t the worst. The agony was that I had catapulted myself into a culture that was draining the life out of me. The culture of the organization was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve found myself in and it gave me greater perspective on the incredibly important dynamic of work culture and why it matters so much.

Culture is a buzzword in the world of business and leadership today. With employees changing jobs more frequently than ever before, leaders are challenged to create environments that engage and inspire their teams. Recruiting and retaining staff is a constant battle. Whether you’re in the leadership seat, on the first peg of the ladder or anywhere in between, you know that being part of a terrible culture is exhausting. Toxic work cultures drain the life right out of you.

Culture matters. In a strong, healthy culture you are motivated, energized, engaged and fully committed. In a toxic culture you lack motivation, are drained of energy, disengaged and always look for a way to escape.

But what is culture exactly? Culture by definition is “the beliefs and customs of a group; a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.”1

Culture is what we believe or value as a team and it’s how we think, behave and work. The best cultures I’ve observed are marked by teams that have clarity on what they value and they have a defined code for how they work together.

In a strong, healthy culture you are motivated, energized, engaged and fully committed.

But even with clearly defined cultural expectations, the experience can miss the mark if each person on the team doesn’t embody these cultural beliefs, values and behaviors. This is why creating great team cultures is such incredibly difficult work. Each person on the team impacts the culture. For every person who models the beliefs, values and behavior set by the organization, the culture is strengthened. With each person who ignores these beliefs, values and behaviors, the culture erodes.

Consider one of my favorite examples of consistent organizational culture: Chick-fil-a. Have you ever been to a Chick-fil-a restaurant and not heard the words “my pleasure” from their staff? Responding with “my pleasure” is core to the Chick-fil-a culture and I’ve yet to see them miss the mark. They’ve embedded this value so deeply that you can go to any of their 2000 locations across the country and you’re likely to experience the sentiment.

Everyone on the team contributes to culture positively or negatively so if you don’t like the culture of your team, there is something you can do about it. While you may not be positioned to dictate the beliefs, values and behaviors from the top, here are 6 ways that I believe you can significantly influence them and quite possibly help to create a culture you actually want to be a part of.

  • Own it. If you’re a member of the team, you have an ownership in the culture that exists—good or bad. Quit pointing fingers and placing blame for what you don’t like about your culture. Take responsibility for what you can control and own the responsibility to help change it.
  • Define it. How would you define your culture right now? What’s good? What’s not so good? What would you change? Take some time to think about how you would define the current state of your culture and what you would like to improve about it.
  • Engage others. Reach out to your boss and other influential leaders in your organization to see if they resonate with your ideas. Your initiative may be just what they need to increase their commitment to the importance of the issue. Additionally, it will give you perspective on whether you’re targeting the right beliefs, values and behaviors.
  • Model it. Now that you’ve defined the culture that want to work toward, you need to start modeling it for others. Determine what you need to do to really live out the values and beliefs you’ve defined.

Each person on the team impacts the culture.

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  • Recruit for it. Every person who joins your team impacts culture. Hire carefully to ensure that you are recruiting people who will reinforce the right things in your culture. There is power in numbers. Keep recruiting to reinforce the positive qualities.
  • Celebrate it. When you see others contributing positively to culture, point it out. Say thank you. A famous leadership axiom says, “What gets rewarded, gets repeated.” Reward others with thanks and praise when they model culture that makes your team or organization great.

There are no perfect work cultures because there are no perfect people. Cultures are created by the collective influence of each person on the team. We all bring our complexity to our organizations so it stands to reason that our organizations are going to be frustrating and complex. This is a truth we need to acknowledge but not one to defeat us. Great team cultures are worth fighting for. And it takes every person fighting to make it better. You have greater influence and power than you believe. Use it for good to create a culture that other great people are clamoring to be a part of!

1 2016 Merriam-Webster, Inc. app


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Jenni, leadership author, speaker and coach, loves a fabulous cup of tea, great books, learning the game of tennis, and hiking the West Coast with her husband.

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