The First Step in Turning Around Organizational Culture

The First Step in Turning Around Organizational Culture


The purpose of the Center for Positive Organizations is very inclusive. I do not know anyone who doesn’t want to have a high-performing workplace with thriving people!

Sadly, many people experience workplaces that are anything but positive. Indeed, a meta study by Christine Porath found that 98% of us have experienced incivility in the workplace.

When the work environment is toxic, we begin to feel that it is futile to try and make a difference. We believe that things will never change. When a team member tries to make a difference, he is greeted by cynicism and eye-rolling. Sometimes, she is actively bullied or isolated by the rest of her team. Our performance and wellbeing suffers in a whole range of ways. It can feel that there is no way out other than to leave and find a new job.

Yet it is rarely the negative influencers that choose to leave. They stay and perpetuate the negative cycle with each new hire. It is the hopeful, optimistic, positive team members who leave and find a better environment. And so the culture persists.

In these circumstances, efforts to change the culture will not succeed unless there are clear principles in place. I am not talking about broad, warm and fuzzy statements that go on the wall never to be considered again. I mean really specific rules of engagement. What do you stand for and what do you stand against? What behaviors are not tolerated around here, to the extent that they may lead to termination of employment? What behaviors are encouraged around here, and will be rewarded?

Later in an organization’s development, I suggest co-creating these values and principles together. The process can be done with more positive framing questions, and can be quite inspiring and energizing to team members. At this stage, however, the creation and communication of these values and principles is the role of the ultimate turnaround leader – whoever the person is who will have to do the firing for consistent breaches, or the rewarding for excellence.

A few years ago, I was leading a team with some negative interpersonal dynamics. After some considerable soul searching, I realized that I was not being clear to myself and others about what I expected of people on my team. I settled on four principles, and communicating them relentlessly with the team:

  • Get ahead of me. Take ownership for your projects and bring potential solutions not just the problem.
  • Play nicely even when stressed. Be civil.
  • None of us are perfect; do your best but keep learning so that your best keeps getting better.
  • Keep your promises. Hit deadlines or renegotiate the deliverable with those counting on you.

Notice that none 0f these principles are just one or two words, left to the individual to infer the meaning for themselves. They were not values. They were operating principles of how our team would work, as descriptive as possible.

Over time, some people did leave the team because they didn’t fit with these principles. Others stayed and flourished within a system guided by these principles. But everyone knew where they stood. It gave us a common set of relational boundaries to move forward together. In only a few months, some team members were taking it upon themselves to orient potential hires to “our” principles during the interview process.

If you are in a leadership role in a toxic environment it is your responsibility to be a change agent.  Culture change will just not happen without you. There are three particularly hard parts to this process:

  1. Defining what you stand for enough to take difficult actions. What behaviors are not tolerated around here, to the extent that they may lead to termination of employment? What behaviors are encouraged around here, and will be rewarded?
  2. Modeling the principles. Unless you have integrity to the standards you are demanding of others, then others will not want to follow you.
  3. Being willing to take a stand. Many of us are highly conflict avoidant. We have to confront people firmly and fairly, as well as reward and celebrate people based on consistent principles.

With this foundation, you will be surprised how quickly the team culture can change. A basis is set from which you can deepen trust, relationships, helping behaviors. You can find joy, meaning, and purpose together. You can build a positive organization.