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How leaders can fix a negative company culture


When company culture fails, it’s usually on one of two planes: the work environment has gone rotten, or the way in which work is transacted has deteriorated. The two realms are linked, though, so once one aspect has been infected with negativity, the other one may well catch the disease.

Business leaders have two choices. We can build or rebuild culture from the ground up. Or we can address the most glaring symptoms first and make improvements from there. If you’re already suffering from an adverse cultural situation, here are some quick ways to regain control and turn things around.

Supportive Atmosphere

The purpose of workplace culture is to support employees in their quest to do their best. And culture is not “out there.” It comes from the top. Leaders should be directly involved with untangling workplace snarls. If your environment is not supportive—or doesn’t feel that way to your staff—you may need to take one of these steps:

Say yes instead of no. Negative responses are often the default when a boss wants to maintain power, or a direct report wants to avoid hassles. Instead of automatically denying requests for a raise or flex time, for instance, let your first instinct be to agree … with strings attached. Condition the perk on something you want from the employee, such as reaching certain objectives or adding skills that increase their expertise.

If it’s managers or staff who tend to reject requests or new policies, take some time to set firm boundaries and expectations: We expect you to accept new assignments, protocols, or crunch-time duties. Create consequences for noncompliance. And add incentives for going with the flow or above and beyond typical demands.

Bridge divides with team bonding. Harmful gossip and hostile cliques can’t take hold when your workforce feels like a team. If those problems already exist, go all out to remind your people that you all bat for the same side. First, make sure that you and your top leadership don’t indulge in backstabbing or blame games.

Then, use transparency and other trust-building measures to bring everyone together. If you are transparent about the company’s financials, for example, every staff member will understand how their actions affect the organization’s viability—and, by extension, everyone’s job security. Make sure your employees know each other professionally, by sharing individuals’ roles and goals, and socially, by including ice-breakers in meetings or company get-togethers.

Recognize routine and extraordinary efforts. They don’t call work “the daily grind” for no reason. A little acknowledgement goes a long way toward showing your people that you appreciate all they do. From personal gifts to annual bonuses, gestures reinforce thank-yous and demonstrate sincerity.

It’s important for leaders to acknowledge performance in front of coworkers, and it’s a good idea to let employees broadcast their kudos to their peers as well. You might hold an award ceremony, or reserve meeting time to name names. In my company, we designed a special emoji that staff can use in company-wide chats to thank someone who helped out or saved a big client.

Unrestricted Work Flow

If we ask employees about pet peeves, a top choice will be that leaders make it more difficult to do their work. Sometimes this is a control issue; sometimes just poor planning. Removing the obstacles to accomplishing daily goals and solving problems—and giving employees the leeway to make their own decisions—turns this negative into a positive.

Ask for feedforward, not just feedback. Whether you’re setting new policies or monitoring the status quo, ask your people for their opinions frequently. Don’t limit questions to past activities. Go all out and ask what would make it easier to do their work—then act on it.

In your usual project debriefing sessions, take what you learn and apply it to the future. Pair off and have team members ask each other what they need from one another going forward. This is a way to unite teams and get an instant dose of positivity.

Redefine problem solving. Break the cycle of putting out fires by treating trouble as a learning opportunity. Use positive approaches such as appreciative inquiry, which identifies what works when parts of initiatives fail, and which uses brainstorming and strategic planning to arrive at an ideal solution.

It also helps to get out in front of a crisis by proactively setting up alternative paths before things go wrong. It’s much easier to envision plans B and C without a deadline or domino effect clouding your judgment. Include this tactic in project team meetings and larger management planning sessions.

Hire to innovate. Business and HR leaders can cover all the bases by keeping innovation in mind as they select new hires. It may feel good to have a homogeneous staff, but this stifles innovation. To avoid forced consensus, take generational and background diversity in job candidates into account.

A staff of mixed ages and personal backgrounds brings with it a healthy mix of viewpoints. Different thinking styles strike more sparks, providing more and better ideas to help face challenges and improve workflow. Broad diversity also discourages clique-forming by a majority group, actually strengthening the bonds of your teams.

Even as you address the negative aspects of your company culture, you are entering a positive zone of opportunity. As a business leader, follow the golden rule to restore or enrich your organization’s work environment: model the behavior you want to see, and then remove any obstacles toward achieving it. Good culture will follow.


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