Tips on changing a toxic culture
By Mary O’Brien-Killeen, Career Coach, Sli Nua Careers
Q: Last week, you wrote about culture in a company. I work in a company where the culture can only be described as toxic. People are stressed all the time and ready to snap at the drop of a hat. Some key people in the operation are just not up to it and they wash their hands of the damage they cause. Unfortunately, my options are limited work wise where I live – how can I possibly influence the company culture for the better, or is this a forlorn hope? (DD, email).
A: DD, that’s a tough situation for anybody to find themselves in.
It sounds to me that the business owners/managers don’t have the ability or interest in changing the prevailing culture. And that scenario might be more common than you realise – changing culture can require an owner or manager to step on toes and to take people out of their existing comfort zones.
Rather than tackle the issue, they bury their head in the sand and hope that the problem might go away.
Unfortunately, problems of that nature tend not to just vanish and the longer they are allowed to linger, the greater the damage to the culture and morale.
Without that level of desire from the owner or manager, there is almost certainly a limit to what you can do. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
Can you make a difference of some sort? Yes, I believe so. Start with your own role. Are there structures or procedures you can improve upon?
Are there better and more efficient ways to get the job done? Is extra training required, or are extra resources needed?
Do certain tasks need to be delegated to a wider group? Can the business treat its customers better?
If you feel that questions such as these could offset the overall culture problem, change what you can yourself and make positive suggestions to your boss/business owner.
You making a small difference may be the spark required to get things moving. Maybe they might see the merit in your efforts and realise the need for change.
It could be that the owner or manager is so deeply bogged down they don’t know what way to turn. Your emergence as a beacon of hope could be a real catalyst.
It sounds to me like you are in the mood to have a go – my general advice would be to focus on making changes on an incremental basis so that you gradually have an impact, rather than radicalising the place through dramatic gestures.
Change is difficult for people. ‘Change management’ has emerged as a specific discipline in recent times, and not without good reason. Make your changes wisely, with an eye on the long game, and I am confident you can be a positive influence in the organisation.
Apart from leading or influencing the owner or manager, you might be surprised to find there are others in the organisation who have been crying out for a new way. Best of luck: you tread a tricky path but, as the saying goes, ‘if it was easy, everyone would be at it.’
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