How to Shift a Dysfunctional Workplace Culture

The environment as allyAlice worked in a company where her team had weekly all-team meetings. She told me they were hellish occasions, thick with territoriality and blame, a regular weekly gut-shot to morale, creativity and effectiveness. They were also male-dominated and hierarchical, with an entrenched and fearful leadership. Alice, in a new position at the bottom of the ladder, hardly said anything, and what she did say was dismissed.

Everyone else seemed resigned to this culture as the norm. To introduce some softness into this inhospitable environment, Alice began bringing small flower arrangements to put on her desk. Finally one week, she took her flowers and put them on the side table against the wall in the meeting room before people came in.

When the meeting started a few people commented on the flowers, some surprised, some cynical, and the meeting proceeded as usual. Alice brought flowers for several more weeks, and put them on the side table. Then, when the flowers became an accepted norm, she brought a low arrangement and put it in the middle of the meeting table. She thought someone might say, “Get that off of there.” But no one did. Some even thanked her.

After several more weeks, when flowers on the table become an accepted norm, Alice baked cookies and bought fruit. She put them on the table with the flowers. People ate them, and said thanks. They started offering them to each other. As the weeks went on, flowers, cookies and fruit became the norm.  Eventually one of the men asked, “Can you make pecan sandies? Those are really my favourite.” Alice said, “No, but maybe you’d like to bring some next time.” And he did. Others brought favourite things, and the group began to discuss who would bring what next time. A culture of sharing began.

Alice didn’t need to bring food any more, but she still offered flowers. Her colleagues began to ask her what kind they were, and sometimes straightened one that drooped. Flowers and food became the first five minutes of the discussion, and the meetings ended with someone carrying the arrangement out into the office where they could all see it through the day.

Over the many weeks of Alice’s expanding intervention, the meetings lost some of their grimness. As people offered each other cookies, they began to offer each other the benefit of the doubt, so that they could start to listen. A little mutual regard began to surface, and people could bring some creative ideas forward without being squashed. Alice found that her own voice could now also be heard, and that her fresh perspective and gentle clarity were a welcome alternative to the habitual tone. Her colleagues began to turn to her and ask, “Alice, any thoughts on this one?”

Plenty of dysfunctionality persisted of course, but it was a start. Alice told me she felt she’d found a way to contribute to a more healthy society at work, and that the meeting culture was starting to shift.

Alice couldn’t shift the culture on her own. She needed strong allies, and there weren’t any in the team members. She found her allies in the flowers and cookies.

Why did this work?

Because Alice didn’t hand out articles on being a team player, or propose made-up team-building activities. A frontal assault invites resistance. There was little to resist in Alice’s approach.

Also, her flowers and food were real, not made-up “activities,” and they had the power of real things. She shifted the environment the people were in, and the environment shifted the people for her. Her approach was not directive. It was cultural.

She applied her technique in stages, allowing its influence to accumulate. When she suggested one of the men buy pecan sandies to bring, it might have backfired. “I don’t bring cookies. That’s your job, isn’t it?” But her ongoing generosity had already taken things beyond that.

Her flowers and food were soft and nurturing, but they also had a commanding edge of gentleness that cut through some of the nastiness, and so created the conditions for a cultural shift.

But let’s not over-simplify. Flowers and cookies were not the solution to this team’s problems. They had a long way to go, and Alice had more to offer than decor. Her clarity and gentleness, her patience and openness; these were powerful in their own right, and once she created the conditions where her qualities could be seen, she began to uncover the submerged qualities of gentleness, appreciation and cooperation in her colleagues too.

When a cultural shift is needed, the indirect approach, finding allies in the environment, can be far more effective than meeting the issue head on.

Leave a Reply