There are many reasons why company cultures sour, but when they do, turning things around can be a huge challenge. One of the most common solutions is to appoint new leadership that can set a different tone. But that can be a costly gamble. Here are three alternative approaches to shake things up, do away with negative office politics, and give your company culture the meaningful morale boost it needs.
Broken work cultures usually breed distrust between and among employees and managers. Trust is vital to any company’s proper functioning. It’s what makes employees feel comfortable and safe in their workplace. When that trust is broken, team members begin to suspect that the system is rigged–that perhaps their hard work isn’t all it takes to get ahead after all. The environment becomes more about power and self-interest than collaboration.
I once mentored a company that had taken this turn for the worse, at both the individual and organizational levels. The IT department didn’t trust marketing, and the two were repeatedly at each other’s throats, preventing things from getting done. So we got rid of the departments. We shifted seating assignments so those on different teams had to sit next to one another, collaborate, and ultimately rebuild the trust they’d lost–or never had in the first place.
We also scrapped the term “department,” which in some cases creates a mental and physical separation that encourages an “us vs. them” mentality.
When trust goes out the window, so does motivation. The signs can creep in subtly at first–less willingness to work an extra hour or two, showing up a bit late and leaving a bit early, taking longer to accomplish routine tasks. When employees no longer feel compelled to go the extra mile for the company, chances are they no longer see the point. The bottom line can suffer, turnover ticks upward, and innovation lags.
One way to turn those trends around is to take time to understand how your staff is feeling. Make room during weekly meetings to discuss emotions openly, without fear of consequences. Get everything out on the table, then get down to source: What’s causing so many people to feel the ways they do? Gather qualitative data. Survey your staff on things you may fear hearing the answers to, like their happiness levels and the enjoyment they get from their work.
During weekly discussions, talk frankly about your findings and give everyone time to discuss an event that led to a negative response, making sure each person’s feelings are taken into account. The point is to acknowledge the negativity the office culture is fostering–rather than trying to ignore it–in order to help you find the right solutions. That process can help rebuild the trust and sense of purpose that have been lost along the way.
When negative office politics creep in, employees often put more energy into forging alliances and other superficial relationships across the organization, thinking those personal ties can help them get ahead. One solution: Encourage team members to spend a little less time in such close quarters. It might sound risky and counterintuitive to implement a flexible work schedule at a time when your work culture is in crisis. But it can help diffuse some bad energies.
Let employees find their own work-life balance and create schedules that work best for them. Make it clear they’re still expected to do their work–and that the policy is designed to help them do it better–even if that means showing up late or leaving earlier and wrapping up some work from home in the evening.
Ultimately, though, the best way to fight a worsening work culture is to keep a lookout for early signs that things are going awry and taking the steps to combat them. Get to the root of the problem, whether it’s the particular combination of personalities in your office or the values your company intentionally or unintentionally communicates. No leaders like having to take drastic measures in the first place, but you shouldn’t hesitate to think creatively and make bold moves when the situation calls for it.
David Tomás is a young entrepreneur and cofounder of Cyberclick Group, a leading digital marketing company. He is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. Follow him on Twitter at @davidtomas.