An Army of One: 5 Ways You Can Reverse a Negative Corporate Culture

For more than a decade, I’ve interacted with global companies that have inspirational posters on the walls and a glaring lack of vision everywhere else. In these places, goals are shortsighted and process is everything. New ideas and approaches are met with criticism but new meetings are invented every day. The environment couldn’t be less conducive to innovation, yet leadership continues to press employees even harder for it.

This is the unfortunate state of many companies today, even formerly dominant market leaders. We’re on the verge of a negative-culture epidemic, yet it’s one that we can start reversing today. Now. And it doesn’t require another meeting or a sweeping change initiative. In fact, the solution lies in exactly the opposite approach.

HBO went through a major restructuring in 2011, when leadership announced a new culture of transparency and a team approach. But as employees at all levels suddenly started working together, it was evident that a more productive group dynamic was needed, and that management would need to nurture this consistently over time.

“We realized that building a positive culture is not a one-time offsite exercise,” said Shelley Brindle, EVP of Domestic Network Distribution (DND) at HBO. “We needed to adjust our mindsets to establish team trust and collaboration before anything could change.”  The results of their cultural focus have been extremely successful, making the DND group an accomplished, positive force in the organization.

Although culture-building isn’t a one-and-done tactic, the most powerful weapon for counteracting a negative culture is constructive communication—both verbal and non-verbal. By shifting your own behavior away from negative responses and defensive habits, you send cues that have a measurable ripple effect. But how, exactly, do you do it? Explore the five tips below and start building a positive corporate culture, one interaction at a time.

Practice Positive Inquiry. Avoid phrases like “why did/didn’t you do X,” which usually prompts a defensive reply. Instead, try asking “What are some ways we can avoid/achieve X in the future?” This type of approach turns a blamestorm into a brainstorm opportunity. No matter how absurd a concept sounds, train yourself to ask “what’s right about this idea?” instead of the instinctive “what’s wrong with this idea?” Innovation often emerges from previously dismissed ideas, so ask yourself—and your teams—what aspect of this idea has potential? How can it be improved? With additional information, could it be feasible?

Establish an Ego-Free Workplace. Lead by example and acknowledge your own mistakes instead of throwing others under the bus. Encourage divergent opinions but redirect discussions that tread into the territory of personal attacks. Be quick to publically inform teams that criticizing others’ ideas or strategies without first exploring potential value won’t be tolerated. When you model the type of communication you want to see office-wide, employees will emulate it.

Orchestrate Collaboration. Pair individuals from different parts of the organization to serve as each other’s go-to person for idea generation, advice, and resources. Designate a “connector” in your organization to actively track innovation activities across departments and link people whose experience or capability matches a project need. Keep all members of the group accountable by establishing a timeline for deliverables. As trust increases between team members, successful collaboration will follow.

Seek the Discomfort Zone. Leaning into progress and innovation requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. Nudge yourself and others out of autopilot by holding meetings in unusual places, exploring or researching new topics, and asking questions that don’t have easy answers. When people start questioning the status quo, it opens the door to innovation possibilities.

Celebrate + Reward Disruptors. If performance bonuses or cash-for-ideas aren’t feasible, use non-financial compensation to incentivize employees. Reward innovative behavior with days off, gift certificates, spa-days, or group outings. Whether it’s an award bestowed in front of peers or a sincere phone call from senior management to say “thank you,” recognizing employees for a job well done is essential for cultivating a positive corporate culture.

Click here to download Lisa’s webinar, “Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution”

To create an environment that’s conducive to innovation, egos and comfort zones must be shown the door. [tweet this] We must reprogram our professional skepticism to consider unfamiliar and seemingly impossible ideas. The art of sharing works-in-progress must be practiced and achievements recognized. As teams begin to experience an open, trusting work environment, mindsets will shift and make room for a new culture to take hold. Nourishing that positive culture will provide the natural foundation for innovation.

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About Guest blogger Lisa Bodell

Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink, an internationally recognized innovation research and training firm. Lisa founded her company on the principle that with the right knowledge and tools, everyone has the power to innovate. As a leading innovator and cognitive learning expert, she has devised training programs for hundreds of innovators at leading companies such as 3M, GE, and Johnson & Johnson. Lisa is also the author of provocative culture change book, Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution, which was named one of the Best Business Books of 2012 by Booz&Co and won the 2013 USA Best Book Awards in the Business: Management & Leadership category. For more information on Lisa, please follow her Twitter at @LisaBodell.
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3 Responses to An Army of One: 5 Ways You Can Reverse a Negative Corporate Culture

  1. avatar Ben Simonton says:

    Negative corporate cultures are caused by executives who view their job as directing and controlling the creation of products and services for customers. Carrying out this view creates the negative corporate culture you describe because it demotivates and disengages the workforce.

    To achieve excellence and create the very best culture, management must realize that directing and controlling the creation of products and services is the job of the workforce and that management’s job is to its authority to provide the workforce whatever it needs to excel in doing that. The workforce needs high levels of such things as competence, confidence, morale, trust, peace of mind, autonomy, commitment, motivation, and pride. For the vast majority of the workforce, only management can create high levels of those. The process is quite simple.

    The last time I did it, employee performance rose by over 300%, almost everyone loved to come to work, and our competitors were unable to compete with us.

  2. avatar Nick Ellerby says:

    Refreshing to read such shared sense experiences – it’s great to know there is a growing embracing of such approaches and recognising that it is not an overnight shift but one that calls for more of the person to be engaged. Love the recognition of non-financial encouragement.

  3. Nick -
    Thanks for the great comment. Agreed that non-financial encouragement is key!

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