As a leadership coach, I’ve worked with many people who finally got the promotion they’d been working towards, but with a work culture they didn’t bargain for. This can feel like being dropped right into the middle of a raging sea, without so much as a life raft. Sometimes staff is overworked, or wasn’t treated well by previous management, resulting in a lack of trust in leadership. Issues between team members may have gone unaddressed, engendering resentment and even undermining. Poor communication from the top-down can also cause unrest within a team.
In short, while we can choose the positions we assume, we rarely get to choose the team or workplace environment that comes with it. So, as the new kid on the block, how can you lead your team out of the toxic culture storm? Why, step by step, of course.
Nineties boy-band references aside, an unhealthy workplace culture is not insurmountable, but it won’t be fixed overnight. Plan and prepare to invest time in the following areas to set your organization’s ship toward steadier waters.
Listen. Commit time and resources to getting to know your team on an individual level. Learn about their career background, history with the company, and their interests outside of work. Get their gauge on the workplace environment. These sit-downs will help to foster belonging and build trust, because your team members will feel heard.
Assess. Similar to the previous section, this assessment is done one-on-one with employees as well (or could even be part of your initial time together). Gather information regarding the talents and skill sets your organization has, and ascertain if those skill sets are being used wisely by the current structure. Ask employees about their goals within the company, and where they believe their skills can be best utilized. You can also take this opportunity to ask each person what motivates them and where they see potential opportunities for improvement.
Know the culture. It’s important to know the landscape of the organization you’re walking into. Has your team seen a high rate of turnover? How do members of your team interact with each other? Is there collaboration among work groups or unspoken superiority complexes? Underlying issues in these areas will need to be identified and addressed before any kind of forward motion can occur.
While answers to some of these questions may come up during your one-on-ones with team members, consider meeting with other leaders in your organization who may have insights to add. They can help you understand more about your team’s dynamics, the political landscape, and any “unwritten” rules that are simply “the way things are done.”
Cast your vision. Now that you’ve gathered and analyzed the feedback from the previous steps, you can begin to conceptualize any restructuring you feel is necessary. However, don’t propose these changes to your staff without first creating an overall vision for who your organization is, why it does what it does, and where it’s going. This gives your team a common goal to align with. Once your team buys-in to the vision, they’re more likely to be receptive to any restructuring plans that support it.
On that note, be sure to strategically pace any changes. If you try to push too much, too quickly, you could negatively impact the chance of success. Gradual changes allow your team time to adjust and adapt comfortably, which will make them more receptive to future changes.
Communicate…a lot. One of the quickest depleters of employee trust is a lack of communication. Whether it’s the cleaning schedule for the staff fridge or major changes coming from human resources, your team wants to be in the loop. This is especially true for workplaces that are recovering from leadership that was far from transparent. Issues between staff? Get comfortable with instigating difficult conversations. Your team doesn’t have to love each other, but with a little mediation and conflict resolution, they should be able to develop a respect for each other’s contributions towards the common goal.
Make sure that communication isn’t only one-sided. Complete the communication cycle by routinely asking for feedback, letting your team know that your voice isn’t the only one you want to hear.
Bottomline is, you don’t have to give way to the toxic undertow you inherited. Stay encouraged, and ask for help when needed. Seek the advice of friends, mentors, or even one of our experienced leadership coaches. With a well-designed strategy, Bright Places can give you the tools needed to swap that toxic culture with one that thrives. While the process does take time (and repetition!), healthy workplaces see less turnover, greater innovation, and higher productivity. That means that committing yourself to the health and well-being of your team is actually the greatest investment you could make.
Want to learn more?
Leading the Team You Inherit, Harvard Business Review
Inheriting a Dysfunctional Team? 5 Tips on How to Fix it, LinkedIn
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#EqualPayCA is a campaign led by the First Partner, in partnership with the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls and the California Partner’s Project, focused on closing the pay gap in California. California has the strongest equal pay laws in the nation, but passing a law is only the first step.
Join Professor Sacha Joseph-Mathews and myself as we discuss topics that increase our awareness as we work together to promote a culture of pay equity in the workplace.
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