How to fix a stagnant culture

There are many tell-tale signs that your workplace is unproductive, says Colin D Ellis, and several strategies that can help you turn things around

When it’s vibrant, culture is the biggest contributor to organisational success. Healthy cultures require two consistent elements to achieve this success: emotionally intelligent employees who care about what they are trying to collectively achieve. Vibrant workplace cultures get the job done. Stagnant cultures contain neither of these things and, therefore, don’t.

Vibrant cultures create productivity and engagement, which in turn generate sales and revenue. Stagnant cultures do the opposite and cause organisations to lose money. According to the Gallup State of the American Workplace survey, poor workplace cultures cost US businesses alone between $400bn and $600bn in lost revenue, while in the UK the estimate is around £23.6bn per year.

But how do you know whether you have a stagnant culture likely to cost you money, market share or your best staff? There are five tell-tale signs.

They are unsafe

When Google surveyed its teams in 2017 and asked them the number one attribute of great teams, psychological safety came out on top. The term describes how safe people feel in airing their views, issues or questions. In stagnant cultures, they don’t feel able to do this. People make excuses for those colleagues they’d rather not deal with; employees take the only action they feel they can, by withdrawing and keeping vital information (and energy) to themselves.

They’re quiet

That means library quiet, and not in an ‘everyone is working hard’ kind of way, more a ‘we don’t want to communicate with each other’ kind of way. That may be a result of the fact the workplace doesn’t feel safe, or staff just don’t care enough to want to talk openly about the challenges they face.

Communication remains the biggest contributor to team failure and, in stagnant cultures, the issue is ignored and staff are left to wear their headphones to block the culture out.

There is a ‘dung beetle’ mentality

We all know what this means. People will say (in their inside voices, obviously): ‘This is my dung. Nobody’s dung is as important as my dung. Only I can push my dung, no one can push it like me. Everybody else’s dung smells, but mine doesn’t. This is the way my dung has always been and it always will be.’

People’s super fund is often wrapped up in their dung, which is why they don’t want to let it go. There’s no sharing, delegation or asking for help. People cling to their dung and often wrap it in the worst kind of behaviours.

Targets and deadlines are missed

Sometimes, they are not even acknowledged. Managers set expectations, but the outputs are almost never received within the time and quality required. If they are, it’s only because managers have to resort to micro-managing or bullying people to ensure they get delivered.

There is a blame-throwing culture, where individuals look to blame anyone but themselves and self-awareness is extremely low. It often appears that people are deliberately getting in the way of progress.

Missing targets not only affects operational performance, it also means any efforts to ensure the organisation stays relevant (through projects) are affected. Overall productivity declines, good staff leave and before long the culture is at crisis point.

There’s no consequence

That means no comeback for either poor performance or poor behaviours. And if there’s no consequence, what you’ll get within the culture is more of the same. Stagnant cultures choose to walk past poor behaviours then wonder why it spreads to others, who are then seen to be ‘acting out of character’.

Cultures exist at every level of the organisation, so it only takes one bad apple to spoil the fruit bowl. If you have a stagnant culture, it’s important to understand it won’t fix itself. People aren’t going to miraculously start caring where they haven’t before.

You have to stop, listen and bring staff together to redefine the components required for a vibrant culture. Not only does it have to look different, it has to feel different too. Only then can expectations be reset and staff can start holding each other to account. Only then do you have any chance of getting yourself out of the stagnant cultural mess you’re in.

Colin D Ellis is a culture change expert, international speaker and author of Culture Fix