Employee Experience

Misconceptions about workplace culture (and how you can make a difference)

3 Mins read

Workplace culture is both a “hot” and important topic in the world today. Companies are struggling with the reality that many of them have seriously unhealthy workplace cultures. Yet many people (including leaders) have significant misconceptions about workplace culture and how (or whether) it can be changed. 

Common results from these misconceptions about workplace culture include:

  • a) they want to do something to make a difference but don’t know where to start,
  • b) they waste their efforts completely due to their misguided attempts to change the culture,
  • c) individuals within the organization give up trying to improve the culture because they view the situation as hopeless. 

Let’s look at these misconceptions about workplace culture and then address what individuals within an organization can do to start to make a difference.

Misconception #1: “Culture” in an organization is so big, gnarly, and complex that it can’t be changed

Individuals (especially in larger companies and organizations) look at the current life of organizations and feel overwhelmed with their complexity. They conclude that the organization cannot change because they perceive the problem as too big to address. This is clearly not the case. Various types of large organizations have conducted self-assessments, identified significant problems that require addressing, and embarked on a successful path to change.

Misconception #2: The only way to change an organization’s culture is to do a total ‘reboot’

People sometimes reach this conclusion because they observe companies and organizations changing significantly after they have had a significant event (for example, a bankruptcy) which requires them to totally reorganize and reformulate the organization. At other times, they observe the birth of a new company after the demise of a formerly large, unhealthy one, and a new, renovated variation of the former company emerges “out of the ashes.” While this can serve as a method for changing workplace culture, we clearly do not wish to essentially amputate significant parts of a company to create a healthier version, although this may be necessary on occasion.

misconception about workplace culture 2

Misconception #3: No one person can really impact their workplaces’ culture very much

Some hold this belief due to the incredible “staying power” of an existing structure and way of being. Many cultures and communication patterns can feel almost immovable. Individuals reach this conclusion because they believe that “culture” is an external entity that essentially happens to an organization. The reality is: workplace culture is the result of the interaction between structural elements of the company and the combination of thousands of individual interactions between all of the individual employees.

Misconception #4: A dysfunctional corporate culture is best revamped by changing the leadership at the top

Maybe. Maybe not. While changing leadership at the top is necessary, taking this single action doesn’t guarantee any change within the corporate culture. This is evident from the numerous companies that have recently dealt with toxic cultures, replaced their leadership, yet still observed the persistence of cultural patterns. This often occurs because the leaders at lower levels share the same values and approaches as the senior leaders did.

Misconception #5: Culture is easy to change

There are also people who simplistically believe, “all we need to do is be more positive” and a negative workplace will magically transform. Culture is complex and, in many cases, is difficult to change. But, when the people within an organization understand what comprises culture and then start a systematic approach to revising those factors which help shape culture, transformation can happen.

How does one change culture, then?

As indicated above, the first step is to empower people to change their individual behavior. If each individual employee, supervisor, manager, or executive takes responsibility for themselves to make small, but consistent, changes in their behavior over time, an organization’s culture can begin to “morph” to a healthier state of being.

Secondly, structure highly influences organizational culture, encompassing communication patterns, decision-making styles, and expectations for daily operations. Additionally, continuously articulating the organization’s mission, priorities, and values that will drive its mission attainment plays a significant role. For instance, a company might have a mission to “serve their clients” and “provide a reasonable return on investors’ investment,” but the approach taken (and the underlying values guiding actions) will significantly shape the corporate culture.

Third, there are other critical elements that leaders often forget. For example:

  • the need for community;
  • the power of visual symbols;
  • the importance of music, food, and celebrating organizational successes.

Traditions and habits, which represent actions performed repeatedly without conscious thought, constitute the remaining components of an organization’s culture.

If you are interested in trying to reshape your organization’s way of operating, begin by reflecting on how your daily actions might impact the aspects of workplace interactions you find unfavorable. Explore ways to change your behavior to potentially initiate a positive difference. You can influence the communication and behavioral patterns around you, and ultimately, you will begin to affect change in your overall organizational culture.

Further Reading

Understanding Trompenaars Cultural Dimensions – A Complete Guide
Understanding The CAGE Framework – Tips, Tricks & Best Practices
Ruinous Empathy Quadrant: a Complete Guide

2 posts

About author
Dr. Paul White is a psychologist, speaker, and leadership expert who “makes work relationships work.” He is the coauthor of the best-selling book, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, which has sold over 575,000 copies.
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