Becoming a Change Agent in a Toxic Culture – Part 3

culture perspectives Sep 08, 2016

Read Part One and Part Two of this series: Identifying and Navigating Toxic Cultures + Saving Your Soul: Keeping your Soul Alive in a Toxic Culture

“I realised that I had to make the choice; did I want to accept the status quo or did I want to create a place that I would be happy for my children to work in?”

It takes courage, commitment and awareness to consciously act as a change agent rather than become victim to a toxic culture. It requires you to become the hero of your story. Some of the daily practices of a change agent may include:

  • Recognise the positive intent of others
  • Establishing feedback mechanisms up, down and across the organisation
  • Respectfully and artfully challenge the status quo
  • Make small incremental changes towards the aspirational culture
  • Establishing coalitions of the willing; creating communities of change

Recognise the positive intent of others

Most people do not wake up in the morning with the intention to perpetrate a toxic culture. Often, if they truly believed that they had a different choice, they would make it. Yet so often we attribute people’s personalities or poor intentions as an explanation of their behaviours and ignore other factors such as culture. In recognising positive intent, we experience greater relaxation and have a greater capacity to respond, rather than react. Alone, this has body, mind and soul benefits to us and to the people who we judge. It also allows people to reflect on their choices and creates a greater sense of being understood and a foundation for much deeper trust and collaboration. What we have seen in our culture work is that this practice alone can be enough to turn culture around.

Establishing Feedback mechanisms up, down and across the organisation

One of the ways that toxic cultures grow is through hierarchical silos. Often senior leaders or executives have no idea how those at the other end of the hierarchy experience them, their policies or the culture. By finding and creating two-way communication mechanisms where the marginalised voices are able to be heard, senior executives may gain a deeper appreciation of what it is like to wallow in the swampy waters of the organisation, and the appetite for change across the organisation. Ongoing feedback and communication up, down and across the organisation will help you to understand how small changes are being embraced, share success stories and continue to adapt approaches as needed. It will also identify warning signals, wastage and opportunities to free up energy and resources.

Respectfully and artfully challenge the status quo

The most powerful way of challenging the status quo is not to succumb to it. A person who remains true to their heart, soul and humanity, invites and encourages others to do the same. When we challenge the status quo, the nature of our intent, language and manner can either polarise or inspire. In our opinion, regardless of how toxic a culture has become, there IS a positive intent behind the culture, and there is a way to healthily express this positive intent. For example, the intent behind many hierarchical and suppressive cultures is to keep the organization safe. This intent is positive and CAN find a healthy expression. So rather than demonising the culture, find constructive ways to question the outcomes of current behaviours, whilst supporting the positive intent.

  1. You may also like to refer to our paper on page 14, section 3.5.2 “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”

We find the question “how can I challenge in a way that invites responsibility rather than defensiveness” to be a good guide in developing a communication strategy. It is also likely to be useful to identify areas of resistance to change (who will lose power/authority if we move away from the status quo) and areas of likely support (who will be the benefactors of change). This information can become very helpful as you plan your overall strategy. Through the process of challenging the status quo, it is important to balance urgency with patience. Many people may be largely unaware of organisational dynamics and even if the solution appears obvious to you, until you have enough people understanding and taking responsibility for the issue, little movement is possible.

Making small incremental changes towards aspirational culture
We often over-estimate how much change we can make in the short-term and under-estimate how much change is possible in the longer term. Small incremental steps are much safer, they are gradual so don’t cause as much discomfort or defence and over time they build momentum and a belief that change is possible. Another method is conducting safe-fail experiments that can support or disprove hypotheses about how change might be most successful in the system. When you try something and it works, try it again somewhere else. Amplify what is working and modify/discontinue what isn’t. Safe-fail experimentation is a learning journey. As you continue to experiment, you may learn/uncover critical information regarding:

  • Systems and structures that hold the toxicity in place (for example organisation structure, delegated authorities, hierarchical rules or policies that incentivise toxic behaviours)
  • The relationships or power dynamics that reinforce the toxicity
  • The beliefs, mindsets and myths-mistaken-as-truths that drive toxic behaviours
  • Methods and pace of possible change

Establish coalitions of the willing
For change to occur, your role must be as a catalyst rather than as a martyr if you wish to survive. This requires finding, one by one, people who have the capacity to support the organisation to shift out of its toxicity. Some of our clients manage this through building forums either in person or virtual where cultural challenges, elephants in the room and undiscussables can be brought onto the table for discussion.

The smallest of changes today can make the biggest positive difference in the future. Identify those that support constructive change, and begin the journey today. If you’d like to learn more, we are running a workshop on “Creating Effective Cultural Change” in October. Click here for more information. Read Part One and Part Two of this series: Identifying and Navigating Toxic Cultures Saving Your Soul: Keeping your Soul Alive in a Toxic Culture

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