When members of the United States Secret Service were recently accused of engaging prostitutes while on security detail for the President, investigators began asking questions not only about those directly involved but also about whether the department’s leadership may have endorsed (or ignored) a macho, untouchable culture.
After more than 4000 private phone calls were illegally hacked by News of the World reporters, an employee shared that media baron Rupert Murdoch “established this 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.”
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 darn 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 going to 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.
You Are the Culture
Me? Huh? 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. And no matter whether you are a leader in the business or simply in your own life, 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 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 Blackberries 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 (the scientific types call 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 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 Blackberry 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. 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.
- Darcy Eikenberg, ACC, is the author of Bring Your Superpowers to Work: Your Guide to More Clarity, Confidence & Control, and a popular leadership and workplace coach and speaker. Download a free chapter of the book, get her twice-monthly Community News, and get more free tips and tools on career and success site RedCapeRevolution.com.