From Bystander to Change-Maker: Turning the Tide in the Workplace

Recently, a comment caught my eye during a discussion within one of my communities: “If the workplace culture is toxic, the only way to deal with it is by leaving.” My immediate retort was, “Running away from bullies only creates more bullies.” But that got me pondering.

Is it possible for employees to cultivate a healthier work environment from the ground up? This is particularly critical in organizations where HR isn’t a strong ally or does not exist at all. This concern is even more pressing for immigrants, for whom keeping a job is often a matter of survival.

Management literature is replete with advice for top- and manager-level executives on how to drive cultural changes. But what about those who don’t have the “power of command”? Is there a roadmap for them?

Harnessing Grassroots Power for Change

The concept of mobilizing lower-level employees to instigate change isn’t new and has seen success. However, the general sentiment is that management needs to back these initiatives. What if that support isn’t there? Does it mean efforts are doomed to fail, or can something still be done?

As someone who specializes in cultural curiosity training, I’ve observed that the root of a toxic work environment often lies in misunderstandings stemming from lack of knowledge, and even fear, on both employer and employee sides. Both employers and employees contribute to a toxic culture, sometimes purposefully, sometimes unknowingly. Compounding this problem is the harsh reality that many small and medium-sized enterprises don’t have access to specialized training programs. As a result, when budgets tighten, training initiatives aimed at fostering inclusivity and openness are usually the first on the chopping block, perpetuating a cycle of misunderstanding and tension.

So, What Can You Do?

If you’re an individual without the power of a managerial position, you may wonder how you could possibly make a difference. Here are my thoughts:

1.  Become a Better Global Citizen:

To impact change, you must first build a strong coalition. This requires understanding how to engage collaboratively with people from diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and orientations. Cultivate your cultural curiosity.

Being culturally curious involves learning about the nuances of how cultural perceptions influence key aspects of team dynamics, such as communication, trust-building, persuasion, and decision-making. A simple example of this might be understanding the varying importance of hierarchy and titles in different cultures. In some cultures, addressing a superior by their first name is common and encouraged; in others, it’s seen as disrespectful. Being aware of such nuances can enhance your communication and overall effectiveness in a multicultural environment.

Moreover, if you truly want to be a catalyst for change, you must go beyond just understanding differences; you must also work towards creating an inclusive environment that values diverse perspectives. This often involves advocating for underrepresented voices, challenging biases (including your own), and encouraging a culture of empathy and respect.

While this may seem like a daunting task, remember that change starts with small actions. Moreover, it’s okay to seek help in developing these essential skills. Our team specializes in helping professionals like you become more culturally curious and competent. So, if you feel that you need assistance in navigating this complex yet rewarding journey, don’t hesitate to reach out for guidance.

2.  Dare to Ask Questions: 

While the old saying goes that “curiosity killed the cat,” it’s also true that no revolution ever occurred without someone taking a risk.

Psychological safety, often thought of as a top-down initiative, can also be nurtured from the ground up. In the right environment, equipped with the skills to navigate conversations effectively, you can pose critical questions that challenge the status quo and prompt people to think.

To better assess the state of psychological safety within your team, consider Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson’s 7-item questionnaire:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, is it not held against you?
  • Are members of this team able to bring up problems and tough issues
  • Do people on this team accept others for being different?
  • Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
  • Is asking other members of this team for help not difficult?
  • Would no one on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?
  • Do working members of this team value and utilize my unique skills and talents?

In the traditional management paradigm, decision-making typically trickles down from the top. However, the fast-paced and ever-changing business landscape today is prompting organizations to rethink this approach. The move towards bottom-up management is gaining traction, empowering employees at all levels to actively participate in shaping the organization’s future.

So, be part of this change. Take the initiative in fostering a psychologically safe environment for your colleagues. You never know—others might be inspired to join you.

3.  Pick Your Battles Wisely:

The desire to instigate positive change in a toxic work environment is commendable, but it’s essential to weigh the costs. If your mental or physical health starts to suffer, it might be time to reassess. A startling report from the McKinsey Health Institute revealed that one out of every four employees worldwide grapples with high levels of toxic behavior in their workplace. This statistic is a wakeup call, underscoring the need to prioritize self-care in our professional lives.

Just as we all have unique levels of pain tolerance, our emotional thresholds differ too. Knowing your limits is not a sign of weakness; it’s a hallmark of emotional intelligence. Clarity on your values and setting healthy boundaries are crucial steps toward understanding when you’ve reached your edge. Your well-being should not be the collateral damage in your quest for workplace change.

Also, don’t make the crucial decision about whether to stay or leave your job on a ‘bad day.’ Timing is everything. Choose a moment when you’re emotionally stable to make such a significant choice. That way, you can evaluate the situation more objectively and decide on the best course of action.

The Road Ahead

Changing an organization’s culture is not an individual’s responsibility but should be a collective desire. It’s not just about whether it can be done but whether we have the know-how, the tools, and most importantly, the will.

I’m optimistic. Even in organizations with the most challenging leadership, change is possible.

The question is, are we prepared to initiate it?