Susan was a pot stirrer. She was highly critical of her teammates and company management and loved to spread her discontent through whispered conversations. She saw herself as the heroic truth-teller, rallying others. However, her impact was only sometimes beneficial. Her behavior soured attitudes, initiated gossip, and stoked distrust.

As the dissatisfaction of individuals grew, it spread like a disease, and unhappiness settled over the workplace like a thick fog. Passivity, self-centeredness, and defensiveness became the new norm. A rapid decline in the team’s performance followed. They felt trapped in a downward spiral from which they felt helpless to escape. This intelligent, capable, caring group had unwittingly engineered a toxic culture.

The self-perpetuating cycle of negativity that held Susan’s organization hostage could be familiar to you:

  • Disruptive change that catapulted people into the habit of complaining.
  • Over time, the content of the complaints broadened to include statements about coworkers, which were received as personal attacks and resulted in defensiveness and distrust.
  • As trust deteriorated … community and connection followed suit.
  • Everyone was waiting for someone else to change, which stoked resentment and feelings of powerlessness.
  • Perceived powerlessness diminished people’s sense of autonomy and competence, deepening their disconnection and discontent.
  • More discontent resulted in more complaints.

So if people’s thoughts are the root of the problem, it only makes sense that the place to start repairing the culture is deconstructing and reforming the thought-behavior patterns.

One of the first things we did, was to create a safe way for people to surface their complaints. Complaints are windows into the soul. Hidden inside every complaint is a deeply held care:

She is always in a rush = I want to matter enough to have your full attention.

He never completes his work on time = I want my teammate to show respect by not creating stressors which impact me.

I get stuck doing all the difficult jobs = I want work to be shared equitably.

Shifting the emphasis to what people care about disrupts the complaint conversation and spotlights the path to resolution.

Affirming the agency of each person and removing the victim narrative is a key strategy. To aid individuals in tapping into their power and creating exchanges that reinforced mutual respect and caring, we convened conversations with positive purposes, including:

  • Self-identifying proud moments
  • Remembering personal aspirations
  • Recognizing others
  • Speaking gratitude and appreciation
  • Identifying shared ambitions
  • Discussing constructive team norms

Company cultures reflect the experience created by the people inside the company. When fear, anger, disrespect, and resentment form the majority of the exchanges within the workplace, it echoes in the culture. Your thoughts, behaviors, and feelings have great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Changing behaviors and mindset is the only way to break the cycle. People who want better company cultures must lead the change starting from within. Waiting for someone else to act first gives away your power and keeps you stuck. Change isn’t the enemy; it’s the answer. Embrace it wholeheartedly.

Rita Ernst owns Ignite Your Extraordinary, an organizational consulting practice emphasizing the convergence of happiness and productivity to create positive, committed, high-performing organizations. She holds an advanced degree in Organizational Psychology from Clemson University. Her professional credits include adjunct professor for graduate and undergraduate classes, publication in national magazines, and featured podcast guest. Her first book, Show Up Positive, was released on June 14, 2022.