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Is It the Culture? Or Is It You?

After more than 4000 private phone calls were illegally hacked by News of the World reporters (causing a scandal that shut down the high-circulation, highly profitable newspaper) journalist Carl Bernstein quoted an employee who said that media baron Rupert Murdoch “invented and established the culture in the newsroom, where you do whatever it takes to get the story, take no prisoners, destroy the competition, and the end will justify the means.”

The Atlanta (Georgia) Public School system reeled from a years-long investigation proving 178 professional educators changed or otherwise influenced children’s answers on mandatory state tests, all with an eye to inflate individual school results. “We had a culture of cheating,” admitted one principal.

Closer to home, one of my clients said, “I don’t have a choice-I HAVE to check email throughout my vacation. In our culture, that’s what we do.”

And across the country, a friend confided, “I really need a new job-I’m so sick of this culture.”

That damn workplace culture.

When it’s good, things seem to click. When it’s bad, though, it generates actions that feel wasteful (at best) and even unethical (at worst).

Well, I have a secret to tell you. And you’re not gonna like it, especially if you’ve gotten used to using “the culture” as an excuse for the way things are at work–a way to lay blame for the things you don’t like doing, thinking, or believing; but do, think and believe anyway.

Here’s the secret.  It’s not about “the culture.” It’s about you.

Is it the Culture? Or Is It You?

Me? Huhh?? How could that be? You don’t understand! I don’t make the rules—I just work here!

Exactly. You work here. You. Not some mysterious “they,” as in “they have to change the culture or else!” You and your everyday actions are the culture. What you do, say, and think matters, more than you may realize.

Here’s why. In any organization, “culture” is just the collection of values, stories, ideas and behaviors that its people share. When you share in the things you don’t like, you’re adding more fuel to the fire—you reinforce the culture you wish would change.

So a “bad” culture is partly your fault. Sorry.

Oh, don’t pretend to be surprised, or even offended.

Of course you know how to do the right things, the right way. You’re just scared of what will happen if you do. That’s fair. Work can be a scary place these days (or maybe, the scary part is worrying about the absence of work).

But I know you’re better than your fears. So instead of blaming “the culture” for what you don’t like in your workplace, why not try something new? For example:

  • A culture of checking phones during in-person meetings sticks—until you stop doing it and ask your colleagues to stop, too.
  • A culture of letting new hires “sink or swim” stays in place—until you, tired of seeing them sink too soon, decide to invest time in onboarding and mentoring, even if it’s not your official job.
  • A culture of always focusing on the doom and gloom pervades, until you start telling more stories about all that’s going great—and even smiling more!

Culture starts to change when you start to change.

Plus, peer pressure still works (you high-falutin’ types are calling it “social proof”).  When you stop tolerating or feeding the most undesirable cultural aspects of your workplace (also known as “the crap”), others will follow. And others will follow them. And the change continues.

What are the elements of your “culture” that you wish were different? Consider:

  • When you erase students’ wrong test answers to increase your school’s scores, is it the culture, or is it you?
  • When you stretch uncomfortably toward the limits of ethics or law, is it the culture, or is it you?
  • When you keep grumbling about attending the hour-long weekly meeting, even though there’s only about 15 minutes of valuable content, is it the culture, or is it you?
  • When you check your email at 2 a.m. and always feel exhausted, is it the culture, or is it you?
  • When you walk in the office without greeting the receptionist or anyone you see along the way and then wonder why your workplace isn’t friendlier, is it the culture, or is it you?

You have the power to change your culture at work. It may not be easy. It may not be risk-free. But I know every red cape wearing, superpower-bringing person like you can do it. Maybe you won’t change the whole company overnight, but you will change the experience of one of the most important people you’ll ever know—you.

If you had a magic wand, how would you change your culture at work? Or what are you already doing? Email me here and tell me your story in confidence. Or, share with our community on Facebook so someone else can learn from you!

Read more:

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