Dear ReWorker: As a Middle Manager, How Can I Improve the Toxic Culture at my Company?
DECEMBER 12, 2019
I took a new job in middle management. The company culture isn’t great, and my staff is unhappy. I can’t change policy, and I can’t fix the CEO. How can I make it a better place to work when I don’t have any real power?
Stuck in the Middle
Dear Stuck in the Middle,
The bad news is that a terrible CEO (and a board that refuses to act) is almost impossible to fix from below. The good news is that there is a lot you can do to protect your staff. But, there’s one essential thing you need to remember:
You’re not obligated to sacrifice yourself for your team.
Yes, a good manager makes sacrifices to help lead people, but there is a limit, and that limit is sacrificing your health (mental and/or physical). I give this caution because good people at bad companies tend to want to make everything better, and so they try so hard that they end up burning out. If the CEO is toxic and you feel like you need to get out, you’re under no obligation—legally or morally—to stay. This is a job. You are under at-will employment. Leave if you’re miserable. Your employees can do the same.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s figure out what you can do to potentially make things better for workers.
Determine Why Your Staff Is Unhappy
You say the culture isn’t great, but the first thing you need to do is figure out what specifically makes it not great. Is the CEO super picky about arrival times? Is the culture such that people who deserve to be promoted aren’t recognized, while those who don’t necessarily deserve it get ahead?
Depending on the issue, you may be able to drive some change. For example, if promotions are being handed out unfairly, recommend formalizing the process. Highlight the problems to the CEO and offer to create criteria that employees can work towards before they can be eligible for a higher title.
Don’t Be Afraid to Confront the Toxicity
No matter how "toxic," the CEO hired you because he (presumably) liked what you had to offer. So, do what you were hired to do and bring problems to his attention. But, the way you do it matters.
Try saying something like this: "I’ve noticed that X is common. I’m going to give Y a try, and I’ll let you know how it goes." Notice that you’re not asking permission. You’re just doing it. Trust me—the CEO will say no if he’s opposed.
Now, of course, you can’t do this with everything. "I’m going to give my staff six weeks of vacation," probably isn’t the best start. But something like this might be more effective: "I’m going to focus on outcomes rather than facetime, so if you see my staff coming in a little late or leaving a little early, they have my blessing."
Unless you get a hard "no" to these suggestions, go ahead and start making the changes you see fit. And be sure to be transparent with your team—explain to them that you’re going to try to do things differently and would appreciate their open mindedness. At the very least, they’ll appreciate you trying, which can boost morale in and of itself.
Report Back on Positive Change
Hopefully, your efforts will help change your department for the better—despite an overall lousy company culture. And then, you can go to your boss and say, "Since we started doing X, we’ve seen Y as a result." Sometimes all people really need is evidence that there are better ways to do things.
If you’re lucky, it might kick bigger, cross-company changes into gear. It’s worth a try.
Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady
Image via Creative Commons
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