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):

      

OD-Jobs: Organizational Development is Everyone’s Job

building togetherWhat is Organizational Development?

Organizational Development, or OD, is hard to define. Ask a dozen people and you’ll get 15 answers! To most professionals, OD encompasses change management, organizational culture, leadership development, and organization structure. I’ve worked in organizations that use the term organizational development as an aggrandized term for training.

OD practitioners will argue that their work centers on planned change efforts intended to improve productivity through cultural initiatives such as employee engagement, process improvement and effective performance management. The international Organization Development Network defines OD as

an effort (1) planned, (2) organization-wide, and (3) managed from the top, to (4) increase organization effectiveness and health through (5) planned interventions in the organizations “processes,” using behavioral-science knowledge.

Matt Minahan, current board co-chair of ODN, defines the field a little more clearly…

“Organization Development is a body of knowledge and practice that enhances organizational performance and individual development, viewing the organization as a complex system of systems that exist within a larger system, each of which has its own attributes and degrees of alignment. OD interventions in these systems are inclusive methodologies and approaches to strategic planning, organization design, leadership development, change management, performance management, coaching, diversity, and work/life balance.”

Organizational Development is Everyone’s Job

When this list is viewed in light of the day-to-day operations within an organization, it is possible to see how everyone in the organization carries the responsibility of OD. Since we are all part of the complex system that makes up the organization, our role is to either maintain or influence to ensure forward momentum and effective operation.

As an individual contributor I participate in organizational development by either complying with processes or challenging them to ensure they are effective. I manage my performance, respond to coaching, and openly communicate ideas and concerns.

If I actively contribute and challenge in a sincere and positive manner, I expect to be heard and valued as a member of the system. This requires a management philosophy that not only seeks out staff participation, but is not threatened by unsolicited feedback that questions management decisions. This level of transparency and vulnerability is possible when humility permeates the organization. This, of course, is easier said than done, since we have a strong tendency to self-promotion and self-protection, both of which make it difficult to accept criticism without defensiveness.

Culture Shift is Happening

I believe organizations are gradually learning that there is a great benefit to employing the whole person, not just the part of the individual that aligns with the job description they were hired to fill. A whole-person mindset in an organization allows for full engagement, nurturing innovation, and sharing ownership of the organization’s success at all levels.

When individuals are fully engaged, they look for ways to improve, they lead change efforts rather than waiting to be told what to do, and they feel like what they are doing is significant. While I see things moving in this direction, I know it is a difficult transformation. The forces that are pushing for this type of change encounter resistance from the forces of power and control.

Organizational Development Utopia

I have identified a few things that an organization can do to build the type of full-engagement culture where everyone takes responsibility for organizational development.

First, I believe it takes a process of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I know these concepts are not associated with corporate culture, but they should be. Management needs to come clean about how they have focused more on outcomes than people. Employees have been used, abused, and threatened into performance. At best, this has resulted in either mediocrity or short-lived peaks followed by valleys of burnout and performance rebellion. Employees must confess that they have often withheld their best thoughts and energy in response to their perceptions of management manipulation.

Second, organizations have to rethink processes, especially the conduits of communication. Ruts and grooves are formed over time as the same path is taken over and over again, but our desire for order and predictability may be leading us to a grave, not a garden of opportunity. We must regularly evaluate how we’re doing things and listen to voices of the processes, our people, and the customer and be open to rethinking our strategies.

Third, organizations must forego expediency for wisdom. Executives pride themselves on making quick decisions, believing that their experience and knowledge alone ensure their decisions are the best. But no amount of experience can take in the sage advice of stakeholders up and down stream. Sustainability and maturity come through listening and wisdom, not expeditious control.

Fourth, build on successes and use an asset-based mindset. We like to be seen as problem solvers. With hammers in hand, we hunt for nails that need to be pounded back into place, but maybe that’s not the most productive use of our time. Instead, perhaps the more beneficial approach is to take the time to look at the abundance we’ve created as an organization and focus our attention on harvesting more of that success. In other words, we can choose to see our workplaces as rife with fires to be extinguished, or places of great wealth that needs to be invested.

Finally, creating a fully-engaged workforce requires investment in developing skills, in expanding the world for team members. Tunnel vision occurs when we fail to look beyond our own workplace to see what is going on beyond our virtual walls. Employees should be actively involved in professional organizations and accountable for introducing new ideas into the organization.

I have labeled these five cultural imperatives as utopian because, as optimistic as I am, I know about human nature. When things are going well we will commit to a positive plan of action, building teams and putting money into developing people in our organizations. But as soon as challenges, like a major economic crisis, come our way, we throw development out the window and adopt a command and control management style.

Our half-hearted commitment to doing the right thing perpetuates mediocre organizational life where positive development and effective leadership are hit and miss. This inconsistency causes confusion, disillusionment, and self-limiting behaviors. We can’t afford this approach any more. As companies like Google, SAS, Zappos, QuickTrip, TD Industries and W.L. Gore have discovered, it’s possible to focus on people and profits at the same time. A concentration on one does not preclude the development of the other. It takes enlightened executives willing to forego business as usual to create a culture of full engagement and mutual ownership for organizational development.