Every company and each office has a particular culture. It is often invisible, and not talked about as it is ‘normal’ and all of us adapt to the situation we are in. However, it is a distinct ecosystem that exists and inside of which we function.
If it is a toxic or less desirable culture, we develop coping strategies to survive that culture. When we change our situations, such as move offices or even companies, we must be aware of the strategies we had developed to survive. Do we want to bring those same strategies to our new environment? If we do, we are likely to recreate the environment.
What are the conditions that result in a toxic or less desirable culture?
Most importantly, a lack of trust. The psychological safety that people feel or do not feel is the bedrock of a culture. Without trust, cultures are not safe for people to grow, to learn, to innovate and are wholly unpleasant to work in. Your brain, specifically, your amygdala is constantly scanning the environment to ensure it is safe. When you do not feel safe, not simply physically, but emotionally , you are in a fight or flight experience. Working conditions like this are exhausting and you do not do your best work. Safety is also experienced by belonging and in a culture with a lack of trust, you often do not feel you belong/part of something or are on the lookout for betrayal at any moment.
To create and manage cultures that are enlivening and productive, we need to have a culture founded in trust. The late Judith Glaser, an organizational anthropologist and author of Conversational Intelligence, speaks about TRUST being an acronym which sets up the conditions in which an environment of trust can occur.
Transparency. When there is transparency in a culture, leaders are open about what is happening, admit when they have made a mistake, acknowledge people openly and are open to input.
Relationships. As people we are interdependent, and our relationships are critical to our satisfaction and fulfillment. We often spend more time with the people we work with then almost anyone else in our lives, so the relationships that we build at work need to be ones where we can trust each other. Relationships where we not only depend on each other, we are honest, have each other’s backs and are committed to each other’s success (even when we need to give feedback that may be seen as negative).
Understanding. The key to understanding is listening and listening to connect and get someone else’s experience. When we feel heard, trust and connection is elevated. You do not have to agree to understand. You can disagree but validate someone else’s experience and point of view.
Shared success. I win when you win. My success is tied to you succeeding. In strong cultured companies where people are developed, this is a foundational principle. Trust is exceedingly high if I know you want me to win and your attention is on that.
Truth telling. You call things out when you see them not working or someone acting inconsistent with respectful behavior. You speak up when you have an idea. You are free to share and disagree. You take credit when it is due, and you give credit to whom it belongs. You do not step over things. This takes an extraordinarily strong culture of trust to do this. And where that exists, you have powerful people producing great results.
Now that we know that trust is key, let’s examine some of the common strategies that people develop to cope with and survive less-desirable or even toxic cultures and ones that can be employed to develop strong cultures.
When trust is missing or low, people gossip. They talk to a few ‘trusted’ colleagues about the company, some condition, or other people in order to elevate their experience of belonging in this environment. We all know that gossip is inherently damaging and often backfires, but in this low trust environment, people do what they need to so they can experience psychological safety.
People can also use ineffective but common ways of getting what they want by yelling or ordering people without regard to other’s feelings. What this usually results in is a culture with high turnover and backbiting. Productivity is often low as people do the least they can get away with in a command and control type environment. There is no incentive to do a great job or be innovative or creative when you have a management that is controlling.
Meetings in a low trust culture tend to either be chaotic, as if no one is directing the meeting or stymied when there is no environment where input is appreciated or welcomed. Both of these conditions keep the business from being effective and productive.
Thus, for each person working in a toxic culture, they develop ways of operating that are withholding, careful, or angry and resentful. This allows them to get through the day, but that takes its toll on everyone’s well-being and enjoyment of life and their work.
To create a strong culture, employ the TRUST model in your organization. Be transparent as a leader, welcome feedback. Give feedback from a paradigm of your success is my success. Treat people with respect and honor. When you do that you will elevate trust, people will love working there, turnover will be low, innovation and productivity will be high. You will have created a culture in which you want to work.