Negative feedback, passive aggressiveness, and a steady stream of departing employees are all symptoms of something rotten in a workplace culture. For otherwise thoughtful, productive people, a negative workplace culture causes stress, stifles productivity, and communicates that a long-term career in the company is not likely to be possible. When people start to leave the team and productivity starts to slump, acknowledging that something is wrong is an important first step. But then comes the hard part: what do about it.
Evolving from a negative culture is hard. In some cases, people think that a negative culture is actually a positive. They think it weeds out the people who can't hack it. They think it shows an individual's strength if he/she rises within the organization, despite the barriers, Hunger Games style. In reality, the costs of attrition should be enough for companies to want to create a culture that inspires both productivity and retention. Even though it directly affects the bottom line, there is sometimes still a sense that culture is "soft." But for your company to succeed, team members need to see how they can stay and grow within the company, and culture is often the number one driver of that process. When a rotten culture hinders progress and suffocates growth, you have a serious bottom line issue to address.
To enact real change to your company’s culture, you need a group of people in positions of influence to initially champion and drive the culture building process. Please note: these people are NOT exclusively your party planners and HR team. Culture is much more deeply embedded than social events, and so rounding up your highest profile extroverts to sit on a culture committee is not going to do it. You need people at all levels of the organization who are influencers and movers of people, and who operate mostly outside of formal structures. Part of this group will be senior leadership – for any real change to happen, you need to have the honest and unwavering support of those in charge. But you also need people throughout your company promulgating culture change. To find the right people, think about who actually has influence. Who are the organic leaders? Who do people go to for advice? Which managers are commonly known as "good to work for?" Who are the people who currently navigate change well? It could be the person who sits at reception, or it could be Sarah, the analyst, who is always makes a point to introduce herself casually to new team members. Or it could be Brian, the project manager who always seems to assemble the highest performing teams. You’re looking for characteristics – thoughtfulness, energy, listeners – not just titles or ranks. Real influence happens subtly and throughout all levels of any organization or team, so your culture champions should reflect this diversity of roles and power.
Once identified, this is your core team, your champions. Be selective, but be open-minded – who would you like to be the standard bearer for the type of organization you just joined? For each champion, there will be many others who resist – some consciously, others reactively. Crowning a group of champions from the outset helps you identify trouble spots, cultivate pockets of health, replicate small examples of positive culture, and promote broader culture change in your organization to make it a place where the best people in the field – including you – want to come, stay, and build a career.