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Home · Blog · Team Dynamics and Performance : Changing a toxic culture: turning around the ocean liner

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Recently, I came across this question on a forum I’m involved with:

Dealing with a negative and demoralized culture/team…  What are the key points for a leader to focus on in order to change that culture from negative to positive? How do you energize an impacted team and get them motivated…

There were a number of suggestions around identifying the root cause, clarifying expectations, even dismissing people.  All of which are valid actions, depending upon the severity of the poor behaviour.  But personally I believe they were all missing the underlying problem.

I do realise that what I’m about to say may be seen as very harsh, however in my experience the ultimate responsibility for culture rests solely with the leadership team.  It’s that high-level team that has made decisions (or failed to make decisions) that have supported behaviours that do not fit with the desired culture.  So I wholeheartedly agree with a recommendation to identify the root cause.  It’s just that all too often the leadership team has its finger pointing outwards, looking for someone or something to blame for the situation, when in fact accepting full responsibility for the problem is the first essential step to truly changing the culture.

In that situation,I would suggest gathering information from the workforce, by conducting an employee opinion survey or focus groups with smaller teams, as these are great ways to begin to pinpoint what’s causing the employees the most pain, and also to identify what’s working well so that you can leave those things alone.

However it’s also really important for the leadership team to identify an ideal culture and values for their business, so that they can use that shared vision as their compass to guide them towards a more positive culture.  So starting with answering the question “What does an ideal day look like?” and getting very specific about capturing that ideal culture will be really useful to the leadership team in the coming months (and years) as they begin to steer the ship in a new direction.  This can be a difficult process to do unaided; often the assistance of an experienced facilitator will guide the team through the mirky waters as the team move beyond what caused the problem in the first place.

Ultimately, it will take years of consistent and persistent behaviours and decisions that support the emerging culture to really have an effect, however the leaders unwavering focus and willingness to “do what it takes” will show the employees that there’s a new way of doing things around here.  And I’m sure, if it’s communicated positively, honestly and continuously you will find that many of the team will jump on board very enthusiastically.

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