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Change Your Company’s Culture: How to Avoid Giving In (Or Giving Up)

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Maybe you’ve TRIED to change your company’s culture.

You’ve read books. Shared articles. Talked to your friends, and maybe even to HR.

After all, you think, there are great people here, doing great work. They deserve better.

Um, except for a few of them.

Oh yes, them. The bad apples that spoil the whole bunch, girl.

But apples we don’t seem to be willing to toss out on their rotten cores.

In fact, you think, maybe the whole thing’s too big to change. Or too overwhelming.

Maybe you really can’t change your company’s culture.

And so you stop trying.


That, my dear friend, would be a shame.

You CAN Change Your Company’s Culture: But Here’s What You Need to Know First

Changing your company culture is much simpler than you think.

But first, you need to realize what exactly a “culture” is.

It’s not some scary, undefinable vibration circulating through the taupe walls of your padded workstation.

It’s not a magic rulebook embedded inside the brains of its citizens.

Here’s the secret: company culture is just shorthand for “the way we feel safe around here.”

A Brief History of Why Culture = the Way We Feel Safe

Let’s put a quarter in the wayback machine, and go way, way back–like dinosaur days.

Back then, we needed others around us to be similar to us. It was the only way we could survive.

We needed our community to fight the same enemies. To kill the same food. To divide up the work so that we could get things done before the scary darkness set in.

Having a “culture” became a way to know who we could trust—who was safe.

That need for safety –the need to be around “people like us”—stuck in our heads, and remains part our brain that’s still there today.

Where “Culture” Shifted

In the modern age, as people moved across borders looking for good work and better lives for themselves and their families, our workplaces could no longer be made up just of “people like us.”

And as the world got smaller, our differences at work sometimes seemed bigger.

Because any company (or part of a company) had a set of habits, values, stories and behaviors that made the leader feel safe.

Those became company culture.

But those behaviors and habits didn’t –and don’t–always feel safe to everyone within the organization. So when you’re complaining about “the culture,” you’re really complaining about the fact that you–or someone you care about–doesn’t feel safe to do what they believe they should be doing.

So–enough history. What can YOU do, even if you’re not the leader of the group?

Here are three strategies that help you change your company culture by changing the one thing you control–your own actions.

Three Strategies to Help You Create More Safety & Change Your Company Culture at the Same Time

1. Be the Person Who Always Tells the Truth

Most of us have been raised to be polite and not cause trouble.

If you’re that person, and yet you’re struggling within a dysfunctional corporate culture, you’ve gotta grow the courage to always tell the truth.

Oh, I’m not saying you’re a liar. But I’m guessing there may be times when you silently cringe and say nothing, or you try and say something helpful –but it doesn’t express how you really feel about the situation.

You can’t change your company culture if you’re not willing to always tell the truth.

I’ve got four magic words that help:

“It’s an uncomfortable truth. . .”

  • “It’s an uncomfortable truth, but if we stop procrastinating our planning session and invest the hour now, we’ll save ten hours of scrambling later in the project because we’ll know what each other is doing.”
  • It’s an uncomfortable truth, but if we don’t honestly address his performance gaps now, we’re being unfair to him and unfair to another person who really wants to be in that role.”
  • It’s an uncomfortable truth, but we don’t have the capacity to take on those three new clients. If we do and can’t serve them, it’ll do more damage to our reputation than telling them no now.”

What’s the uncomfortable truth you need to start sharing?

2. Get Specific About What “Better” Looks Like

Habits and behaviors are the meat & potatoes of any corporate culture.

So when you want to change your company culture, you need to zero in on the habits and behaviors you’d like to see changed.

The mistake we make is in just pointing it out:

  • “I’d appreciate it if you don’t yell when you’re upset.”
  • “Please don’t interrupt me in a meeting.”
  • “You’re always late to our meetings.”

Comments like these don’t work because you haven’t made the person feel safe. You’ve sounded critical and negative, prompting most people’s brains to shut down.

Instead, remember that the brain craves clarity, because knowing helps keep us safe.

So get really, really clear on what “better” looks like:

  • “Dave, I understand you get upset when we miss our numbers. But instead of yelling, can we have a deeper conversation about what’s going on?”
  • “Sarah, could you slow down a bit and let me complete my thought before you jump in the conversation?”
  • “Alex, we’re counting on you being at the meeting at the start time. Is something getting in the way?”

No matter what your role, you can spell out what success would look like, in a way that keeps them feeling safe, not criticized.

And when someone does the right thing–even if it’s just a little bit–point it out and praise them, to reinforce the new behavior.

  • “Bob, I just have to tell you that when you stopped in the middle of your rant and apologized started over, I really appreciated what it took to do that. Just wanted to let you know I’ve noticed how you’re working on that, and it really felt like we got more done because of it.”

A “better” culture happens one habit at a time, one behavior at at time, one decision at a time. Make the little things better and the big things take care of themselves.

3. Be the Adult in the Room

Sometimes, everyone knows they’re behaving badly.

But if no one’s telling the truth, or if no one’s clear on what better looks like, nothing will change.

You can be the adult in the room.

You can say, “Okay, that’s enough.”

Too often, our workplaces are just waiting for someone to step up and hold us accountable.

And as much as we don’t think we want accountability, it’s the fact that someone else is looking to us—looking after us—that makes us feel safe.

Like children, we stretch our boundaries just waiting to see if someone cares. To see if we matter.

No matter what your role, the people you work with matter.

And you matter.

Don’t resign yourself to working in a crappy corporate culture. Be the adult and start doing what you know is right to get back on track.

Hey—want more help?

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