From Book: “The Butterfly Impact” and How Changes in Workplace Culture Can Begin with You
A crappy culture will surely slow down any business and make it harder to achieve goals and performance. But that’s not the real problem. A toxic culture can ruin a person’s life. Nine in 10 American workers, or roughly 130 million people, come home every day feeling like they work for an organization that doesn’t listen to or care about them. Unfortunately, research also found that the rate of heart attacks increased by 20% on Monday morning. Culture isn’t a delicate subtlety that only Silicon Valley startups can afford. It is vital for your health and well-being. And luckily, there is something you can do about it.
Using The Butterfly Impact as a goal, we know that a bad workplace culture will inevitably infect every person’s life outside of work as well. It only gets worse if your crop is really toxic or totally dysfunctional. If you think it is the responsibility of management, you are partly right. The ability to create and nurture a great culture for people to thrive is one of the best traits of great leaders. Waiting for someone else to fix it, however, makes you feel helpless. You can do more than sit back and complain about the culture in your workplace. Again, your health and well-being are at stake.
Here’s the secret: you are the culture.
Everything you do at work, every interaction, conversation, email, chat message, smile, laugh, sigh, roll your eyes, present, invite to a meeting, and video call is a part of the culture you work in. . Once you understand and accept this reality – and this power – you can help build the culture you want, instead of the culture you have.
“When I was younger, I felt less able to influence culture,” says Elaine Helm, Seattle-based public relations manager. At the start of your career, you feel like you have less influence. But I’ve learned that leading, whatever your role, is modeling your behavior, interactions, and building that culture piece by piece. People notice it and start to adopt it and incorporate it into their behavior.
“There are a lot of things you can do on a day-to-day basis that will help you feel better about what you are doing instead of bringing stress to the house.”
Each individual can have an impact on the culture at work, for better or for worse. I remember leading a strategy workshop for a client company a few years ago, leading a discussion and brainstorming session in the executive boardroom with about 20 executives from the organization. . I found that the session went very well and ended with some specific actions to move the team forward. Someone I respect said with a chuckle, a partial smile and a raised eyebrow, “Too bad that’s not how things are done here. Ouch. Most of the people in the meeting had then withdrawn, so it was just me and two other people chatting after the meeting. The other person in the room chuckled in agreement. I have heard this type of commentary often in this organization over the two or more years that I had consulted there. This time it hit differently, so I hit back:
“You know, every time you say that, you’re perpetuating exactly the kind of culture you’re complaining about right now. You are describing a part of the culture that should be in the past, but every time you mention it you are dragging it into the present and helping it move forward. It doesn’t help.
As I had established trust, shown empathy, and (hopefully) proved that I knew what I was talking about, my counterpoint landed softly and caused a moment to pause. The two people who remained in the room looked to the side for a few seconds, analyzing this idea, then looked at me and nodded. “That’s right,” they both said, “But…” I don’t remember exactly where the next sentence went, but I’m pretty sure it was aimed at someone else. Another of the stupid things our brains do is jump to conclusions and assign the blame to other people before they understand the context of a given situation.
As surely as culture eats strategy, blame kills trust.
Have you ever driven on the road and had to swerve to the side or brake by another driver? Of course, we’ve all been there. If your brain immediately thought, “What a fool! Then you experienced what psychologists call blame bias. Instead of first considering the surrounding circumstances that may have led to the other driver’s actions, we jump to the conclusion that they are bad and that we are good. What if the other driver didn’t make the turn because an old lady was using the crosswalk? Who the fuck is that?
Blame bias impacts our interactions in the workplace more than we realize. Our minds naturally blame people, without context, without empathy, without understanding. And, according to research, we tend to believe that other people are more likely than us to have a blame bias. When blame bias infects a workplace, it creates drama, assumptions, and fear. It destroys trust. Then all that stress and anxiety comes back to us and also infects our personal lives.
Take a moment and think about all the people you interact with every day in the course of your job. Try to understand all the times that blame biases might surface and how, all together, each instance becomes part of your culture. Much of your culture.
Why did someone miss their deadline? Because she’s a slacker. Why was the job sloppy? Because he’s not smart. Why didn’t this manager show up to the meeting he called on time? Because he is an indifferent person and his mother did not hold him enough in her arms.
“Once you are aware of the blame bias, you will see it everywhere in your life,” Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi wrote in Primed to Perform. “The most powerful personal antidote is to come up with five alternative explanations for the behavior that do not assume a problem with the person.”
McGregor and Doshi recommend the REAP feedback model to start the hard work of “unblocking your life”:
- REMEMBER: Assume a positive intention
- EXPLAIN: Think of five scenarios that might explain why
- ASK: Start by listening to the other person
- PLAN: Identify the root cause and make a plan together
“We invest all kinds of energy in hiring the right people, then underestimate the influence of our culture once they arrive,” the authors continue.
The question for most people, however, is what can you do to influence the culture in which you work. First of all, stop complaining about the culture. Start defending him instead, even when it’s difficult. Too often the faceless business or an expression like it are fronts for a complaint that is actually aimed at a person. A business or building can’t engage with you to solve a problem, but a person can. Mining for conflict, as Lencioni recommended in the previous chapter, and building trust are powerful tools for building a positive culture. And tackle the blame bias that affects us all.
Hallway chatter and side conversations undermine an organization’s culture. “The meeting after meeting,” as it is called in some workplaces, is where people openly share their real reservations about a leader’s new vision. “It will never happen here” is one example of how the culture eats strategy for lunch. As Brene ‘Brown has mentioned several times in her Dare to Lead podcast about her own organization, “we talk to people, not people”.
Rather, these opposing views should be part of the boardroom discussion. It’s so simple, yet so powerful. Mine for dissent, asking uncomfortable questions, saying tough things. If an entire organization had this ability, think how much healthier the culture would be.
I started to run workshops to help people practice these skills in a safe space. It can help alleviate the fear that many of us have that prompts us to avoid conflict at all costs.
If you work in a culture where speaking in a meeting seems risky, if you cannot speak the truth to power in an open forum, focus your attention on building your relationship with your supervisor directly, outside of meetings. The stronger your direct relationship with the boss, the more likely you are both to serve as allies for each other in large meetings.
“Do people trust each other? Sharon Prill said. “If they do, it opens up so many avenues.”
There is more you can do to influence the culture you work in, but it takes courage and effort. Here’s how to get started:
Make it happen
If you’ve ever wished things were different where you work, take a moment and think about that intention. Then take a few minutes and put the pen on the paper (or fingers on the keyboard). Make a list of roses and thorns:
- Document what you like (roses) and dislike (thorns) about how your team and organization work.
- Circle the opportunities: Identify the items on your list that you can directly control or potentially influence.
- Start with one: which of all the possibilities you have seized would be the easiest to exploit? Do that.
- Recognize where the blame bias negatively influences your personal relationships at work and use the REAP model to ‘denigrate your life’.
- Start defending the culture when your coworkers blame “this place” or “this team” and help them understand how they are contributing to the culture they complain about.
If you have a really terrible boss, there’s definitely a limit to how much you can move the needle. (We’ll explore “managing up” in the next chapter.) However, it’s still possible to own what you can and do your part to steer the culture in a new direction.
This is an excerpt from The Butterfly Impact: Resilience, Resets and Ripples, Mark Briggs’ new Amazon bestseller. A large-scale investigation into creating a work-life balance, the book produces a surprisingly simple framework of small, meaningful actions that create a ripple effect, affecting everyone in your world. Graphic illustrations (including the one above) provided by Seattle-based Killer Visual Strategies. More information on The Butterfly Impact on www.butterfly-impact.com.