What To Do When Your Organization’s Culture Sucks

You may be compelled to stay with your company because the pay is good, the work itself is rewarding, or your peers are like family. But the organization culture is mediocre, at best. What do you do when the organization’s culture sucks, but the reasons to stay outweigh the motivation to move on?

I’ve been in this scenario many times: managers who fail to walk the talk, inane policies that defy logic, and practices that thwart progress at every turn. But along the way I’ve learned some lessons about what it takes to survive – even thrive – a company culture that seems to get more wrong than right when it comes to empowering people to contribute to the organization’s success.

10 Traits of Sucky Cultures (in no particular order)

  1. Lack of leadership accountability
  2. Emphasis on maintaining the status quo
  3. Undefined processes
  4. No opportunity to participate in decisions
  5. One size fits all solutions
  6. Command and control management
  7. No support for professional development
  8. Unclear expectations & mixed messages
  9. Undervaluing in-house expertise & insights
  10. Thinking only about the bottom line

Create an Island of Health in a Sea of Bad Culture

So many quips and quotes come to mind as I think about advice for carving out a little slice of heaven in the midst of organizational Hades:

“If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.”

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

I’m sure you can picture a hallway in your organization filled with motivational posters collecting dust. They are artwork, at some level, but certainly not beacons of inspiration that the purchasers envisioned. There used to be a Successories store in every major mall in America, but the platitudes and pictures of teams high-fiving and individuals scaling summits were so far from reality that they subconsciously demotivated us.

So what do I do if I’m committed to my job but am in an environment that brings me down? How do I keep going when the organization is doing so much to stop me from progress? Here are five recommendations for creating your island of health in a sea of bad culture:

  1. Know what you can do – and know your limits. Understanding your boundaries will help you adjust your mindset and not become overwhelmed by all that could and should be fixed. You may have no authority or power to fix policies, but you may be able to put some order to your world that makes things easier to manage. At the same time, be aware of signs that workplace stress is taking a toll on your health. No matter the benefits/reasons for staying with the company, when your health takes a hit, it’s time to walk.
  1. Become a stealth influencer. It’s amazing what you can do when you go undercover to influence up and down the org chart. Covert operations allow you to make recommendations and suggest improvements subtly, little-by-little. You may also benefit from piloting tweaks to processes and practices, sharing your positive outcomes after the fact. True, you probably won’t get recognition for your brilliant ideas, but your workplace will be better, which is more important.
  1. Bring others with you. You don’t have to be stranded alone on that desert island – bring someone with you! Band together with others who are committed to their jobs and want to see the organization culture improve. Partnership alone can do wonders for your job satisfaction! And even if you can’t make a cultural breakthrough, having a colleague to commiserate with will get you through hard days. Commit to being a mutual encouragement to one another.
  1. Be a burr with a sense of humor. Identify a few things that are worth fighting for and be the burr under the saddle of those who are in positions to do something about it. This is probably the most challenging of the five recommendations, since it takes an ability to pester without being labeled a pest. You don’t want to lose your influence, but you don’t want the door slammed in your face either. The key here is to have a sense of humor. If you present every opportunity as an urgent crisis you’ll not be heard (like the boy who cried “wolf!”.
  1. Celebrate successes, however small. Yes, it may be a “party of one,” but do take the time to recognize when your efforts have been successful. Whether it’s a grin as you leave your boss’s office with a new inch of ground, or a more tangible celebration (like cake!), it is important to your psychological well-being and continued motivation to reward yourself when progress is made.

There are plenty of articles and books, and consultants like myself who are available to assist leaders in creating positive workplace cultures, but if your executive team has yet to crack open any of Edgar Schein’s great works on designing culture perhaps the advice above will keep you engaged in the meantime. Or you might want to pick up a copy of one of these books and initiate a “lunch & learn” to talk about what might be done to create a great workplace culture!

By Edgar Schein:

The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, 2009

Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2010 ed.

By Others:

Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture (Cameron & Quinn), 2011

Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture & Organizational Design (Argyris), 2012

(Order below from the CreativeGapMinding Bookstore):