27 September 2023

Too big to change? Why do we keep unhealthy workplace cultures alive?

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Paul White* says there are some fundamental misconceptions about what creates a workplace’s culture and what individuals can do to bring about change.

Photo: Ross Findon

Workplace culture is a “hot” and important topic in the world today.

Organisations and Government Agencies are all struggling with the reality that they have seriously unhealthy workplace cultures.

Yet many people (including leaders) have significant misconceptions about what creates “workplace culture” and whether or not (or how) it can be changed.

Frequent results of these misconceptions include: a) individuals within the organisation giving up trying to improve the culture because they view the situation as hopeless; b) they want to do something to make a difference but don’t know where to start; or c) their attempts to change the culture are so misguided that their efforts are totally wasted.

(Some of the approaches are analogous to trying to fix an overheated car engine by changing a tyre on the car.)

Let’s look at these misconceptions and then address what individuals within an organisation can do to start to make a difference.

Misconception #1:

‘Culture’ in an organisation is so big, gnarly and complex that it can’t be changed

Some individuals (especially in larger organisations) look at the current life of an organisation and feel overwhelmed with the complexity of the problems.

They conclude the problem is too big to be addressed for the organisation to be able to change.

This is clearly not the case.

Huge organisations of various types have taken a self-assessment, seen that there are significant problems that need to be addressed and started on a path to successfully change.

Misconception #2:

The only way to change an organisation’s culture is to do a total ‘restart’ (or kill the organisation)

People sometimes reach this conclusion because they observe organisations changing significantly after they have had a significant event (for example, a bankruptcy) which requires them to totally reorganise and reformulate the organisation.

Other times, they see that a new company is birthed after a formerly large unhealthy one dies, and “out of the ashes” comes a new renovated variation of the former company.

While this can be a way that a workplace culture can change, we obviously don’t want to essentially amputate major parts of the organisation in order to make it healthy (although this is occasionally needed).

Misconception #3:

No one person can really impact their workplace’s culture very much

This belief is held by some because of the incredible “staying power” that an existing culture has.

Many cultures can feel almost immovable.

This conclusion is also reached because individuals believe that “culture” is an external entity that essentially happens to an organisation.

The reality is: workplace culture is the result of the combination of thousands of individual interactions between hundreds of thoughts of individual employees.

Misconception #4:

A dysfunctional corporate culture is best revamped by changing the leadership

While leadership at the top may need to be changed, doing this single action in no way guarantees any type of change will occur within the corporate culture.

This is evidenced by the large number of organisations which have recently had toxic cultures, changed their leadership, but the cultural patterns continue (usually because the leaders underneath them have the same values and approaches the senior leaders did).

Misconception #5:

Culture is easy to change

There are also people who simplistically believe, “all we need to do is be more positive” and a negative culture will magically transform.

Culture is complex and, in many cases, is difficult to change.

But, when the people within an organisation understand what makes up culture and then start a systematic approach to changing those factors which help shape culture, change can happen.

How is culture changed, then?

As indicated above, the first step is to empower people to change their individual behaviour.

If each individual employee, supervisor, manager, or executive takes responsibility for themselves to make small, but consistent, changes in their behaviour over time, an organisation’s culture can begin to “morph” to a healthier state of being.

Secondly, culture is also highly influenced by structure (communication patterns, decision-making styles, expectations for daily functioning), as well as repeatedly proclaiming the mission of the organisation along with the priorities and values by which that mission will be obtained.

An organisation may have a mission to “serve their clients”, but how that is accomplished (and the values on which the actions are based) will significantly impact what the corporate culture becomes.

Third, there are a number of other critical elements that leaders often forget — the need for community, the power of visual symbols, and celebrating organisational successes.

Rituals (those actions which are done repeatedly without thinking) and traditions fill in the remaining parts of what an organisation’s culture looks like.

If you are interested in trying to help refashion your organisation’s culture, start to reflect on how your daily actions may influence the aspects of your workplace’s culture you don’t like and see what ways you can start behaving differently that could begin to make a difference.

You can influence the interactions around you, and ultimately, begin to affect change in your overall organisational culture.

* Paul White is a leadership trainer, psychologist and President of Appreciation at Work.

This article first appeared at www.appreciationatwork.com.

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