How to Improve Work Place Culture, When You Are Not the CEO

In my last post I addressed how to assess culture during the interview process.  I hope those tips and strategies are helpful for those currently in the job hunt.  But what if you aren’t currently looking for a job and wish that your current work environment could improve in culture and morale?  That’s the topic for today, specifically focusing on things we can do as individual contributors and as leaders to help to build positive culture in our workplaces.  If you would like a quick review of the elements of a high performance workplace, you can find it here.  

Let’s start out with the understanding that no culture is perfect, even one that prescribes to positive cultural elements.  It’s unreasonable to believe that an organization and its people will always get it right.  This is because a culture is made up of people and I know I don’t always get it right.  With that in mind, we have to start with an assessment, a list of the things we wish were different in our workplace.  The list might look like this (actual things I have thought over the years):

  • Departments don’t talk to each other.
  • I wish my coworker would quit throwing me under the bus.
  • The coffee sucks in the breakroom.
  • The bathroom toilet paper holder has been broken for months.
  • The parking lot is always littered with trash, why are people such pigs?!?

I think you can probably see from this list that the things that contribute to how you feel about work can be vast and wide, big or small.  Take some time to make your list…….I’ll wait.

Now that the list is made, look it over and decide on one thing you’d really like to change.  It doesn’t matter what it is, and you may not want to start with the biggest rock first, but by all means, you can if you want. 

Now we need to turn our focus to, what can I do about it?  How could I change that particular element of culture?  Could I address the people-related items through having a vital conversation?  This would be very powerful, and you might be really surprised at what you learn and the relationships you can build through this approach.   Check out my past blog on the steps to a vital conversation here if you haven’t read the simple approach yet.

For the physical detractors, perhaps you could make a plan to pick up a few pieces of trash in the parking lot as you see them on your way in and out each day.  Every little bit helps and if things go well, others will witness your actions and decide to join you in keeping things clean – hello overall morale boost!  If you’d like to see a change in the coffee offered, find out if anyone is responsible for buying the coffee and make an offer to brainstorm other options that are in budget.  It’s easy to get into an “it’s not my job” mentality when it comes to these kinds of things.  To be a truly valuable employee who is seen as a culture change agent, we must take accountability and step up to make things better for not just ourselves but everyone in the company.  The main point of these examples is to start with ourselves.  It is key that as we do this, we utilize positive assumptions about people and seek to build trust and mutual respect in relationships rather than pointing out flaws and making others feel bad about past behavior.  

Once you feel you have worked on yourself, it is time to extend to those around you.  If you are in a leadership position in a traditional work environment, you can influence your entire team or department by leading in a high-performance way.  Focus on your team and changing your own team’s dynamics.  I guarantee that you will build very strong bonds with your team members and you will know they have your back.  The other thing that has happened in my workplaces is you start to gain a reputation for being a really good leader, interviewer and boss.  People will want to join your team and even follow you after you leave the company out of respect for your style.  It’s very powerful.  Do not let a poor company culture ruin how you feel at work and take action to improve the macro-culture for your team members.  Make it the best it can be.  

Once you have your team enjoying most of their days, again no culture is perfect, it’s time to start to see what else you can do beyond your team.  A couple of ideas that I have had success with include:

Evaluate Hiring Processes

Look into your hiring process for the company and assess whether it could be improved to include a better panel of interviewers.  For example, I usually start with my own team hiring and try to modify that interview approach first.  I like to include interview panel participants that will not only include the hiring manager but also peers from more than just my department.  In addition, if the candidate will have direct reports, I find it very powerful to include at least a couple of those people in the interview.  You would be amazed at what future direct reports can pick up during an interview that is not always revealed at higher levels.  The biggest benefit about having multiple levels and a wider function base interview someone is that you get more opinions to make your decision and if the person is selected, they already have many people in their corner as they join the organization.  It can make for a longer interview process, but it is totally worth it.  See if you can start to implement it on your own hires and then expand to share the idea with HR.  The business case for this is retention and reduced turnover.  Hiring and training is expensive.  The less often you have to do it, the better.  

Host a Book Club

This is another approach that can be really impactful to others.  Volunteer to host a book club and read books that support the culture you want to work in.  There are many great books on this but here are a few I’d recommend if you’re looking to get started:

  • The Power of Personal Accountability by Mark Samuel and Sophie Chiche
  • Creating the High Performance Work Place by Sue Bingham and Bob Dusin
  • The Oz Principle by Roger Conners, Tom Smith and Craig Hickman
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  • Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Start out small, even if interest is low, and I think you’ll find over time that if people are lifelong learners your group will grow over time.  The one time I did this I received support from the full leadership team, and we held the book club with over 50 leaders across two sites.  Pretty awesome!

My last suggestion is to make personal connections with coworkers who are like minded in improving culture.  Go to lunch, share ideas and then make plans on how you can achieve them together.  When you feel like someone else gets your vision, it helps to bounce ideas off each other and to help stay positive, even on the tough days.  

I hope these ideas are helpful but if you have any questions or want to brainstorm on other ideas, please feel free to reach out to me at  I love this stuff and would enjoy hearing your vision for the future.  


5 thoughts on “How to Improve Work Place Culture, When You Are Not the CEO”

  1. I genuinely appreciate the culture I am currently working in. What I love about this post is that no matter how good or bad you feel your culture is, there is always something that you’d like to improve. This post gives anyone a gentle nudge to get moving in a direction to affect that change. Nice!

  2. Stephanie McCormick Gilbert

    I really appreciate your perspective. I’m going to process all this information and see how to further improve the environment in all aspects of my life.

  3. You are so right that creating and sustaining a great culture takes attention. But, as you point out, you can start with the small things. Recently we told a group during an HPWP orientation to form an intention and then break it into 10 simple steps that would take no more than a few minutes for each. Post these and do one per day. Easy, short — but soon becomes a habit. For instance, using your examples, it could be 10 days of picking up a piece of trash or a phone call to get a small bathroom fixture fixed. Love reading your posts!!

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