Difficult Conversations: Shifting a Workplace Culture To Be Positive For Everyone

Dealing with a difficult person at work can change the workplace culture.

Dealing with a difficult person at work can change the workplace culture.

Almost a decade ago, I bought several copies of Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. I gave it to colleagues and coworkers as gifts. It was a gesture of survival. We all desperately needed strategies to manage a difficult work environment with someone who fit the title’s description.

Creating a calm, nurturing workplace culture — absent such negative types– is a top priority for many women entrepreneurs and leaders.  Navigating tough personalities as brand ambassadors, clients, sponsors and others is also a concern.

Creating a calm, nurturing workplace is a top priority for many women leaders #taketheleadwomen

Susie McCabe, Under Armour senior vice president of global retail, at a panel recently during  Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, said, “The biggest thing we look for is character. We have a no a–hole policy.”

“When your workplace culture is working, it is something that the senior leadership propagates and leverages as a competitive advantage. However, when company culture is not functioning properly — or not working at all— it becomes a deterrent to productivity, innovation and employee morale,” writes Magi Graziano in Talent Management and HR.

“The mark of a great leader is someone who shapes the work culture around a compelling and stimulating mission. A leader, who creates a compelling vision, and articulates that vision in a way that moves people action, is a leader who gets high quality, mission-fulfilling work done, through others,” Graziano writes.

But that may be easier envisioned than put into practice. What if some of the most productive people on the team are also the most destructive personality types? How do you manage those difficult conversations?

“When it comes right down to it, all negativity or upsets stem from one of three causes: an unfulfilled expectation, a thwarted intention or an undelivered communication. When managers understand their employees’ feelings and work-style, it becomes apparent when someone is off kilter or upset. The astute leader is right on top of those upsets and provides help for their people to overcome and get through these motivational killers,” Graziano writes.

A new report from Murray Edwards College in Cambridge, England on gender differences and behaviors at work, recently concluded: “Women continue to report that they commonly experience behaviors and assumptions from male peers and bosses in the workplace that frustrate them and impede promotion by merit. These behaviors include being interrupted and talked over in meetings and being side-lined from many informal conversations where decisions are often really made.”

According to Cambridge Network, “Dame Barbara Stocking, President of Murray Edwards College, said: “Men’s willingness to work beside women to change workplace culture is crucial to getting more women into senior positions. Yet, until now, men have rarely been asked whether they see these behaviors as a problem for women and what they think can be done about it.”

Yes, women leaders and employees need allies to change the actions of difficult people in the office. But considering if there is one, or there are many, highly difficult people you have to maneuver as part of your job each day, does that really make such a big difference?

Women leaders and employees need allies to change the actions of difficult people in the office #taketheleadwomen

Let’s say you love your job, or at least you would love your job and your work if it existed in a vacuum and you did not have to have difficult conversations regularly. What kind of role does workplace culture play in a person’s decision on where to work?

“Employees rank workplace culture as a decisive factor when seeking a new job and more than half believe it is misrepresented by future employers in their job interviews, a survey has found,” writes Anna Patty in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In the study of more than 2,800 hiring managers and employees in New Zealand, Patty writes: “The vast majority (96 per cent) believe cultural fit is an important factor when weighing up career options.” She adds, “When asked to rank what was more important, 29 per cent of employees said pay and the remaining 71 per cent chose a cultural aspect of work including flexibility (19 per cent), performance review (18 per cent), teamwork (13 per cent), ethical standards (13 per cent) and social activities (8 per cent).”

Patty continues, “While most employers said they discussed workplace culture during recruitment interviews, more than half of employees said they felt misled. Of those, about three-quarters said the organization’s environment did not live up to what was promised in their job interview.”

So how as a leader, manager or entrepreneur trying to take the power of poisoning the workplace away from a few bad apples to create a healthier, happier workplace culture? Do you get rid of the difficult person, or try to work around him or her, and shift the culture instead?

“Visible support from the upper echelons of an organization or from the head honcho him or herself can go a long way to create buy-in for workplace cultural change. Change is unsettling at all levels of an organization, and so it is natural for employees to look to leadership for direction,” writes Megan Forward in Lexology.

“When it comes to addressing workplace culture, some of the more resistant employees will need to feel the impacts of their conduct/attitudes on a more personal level before they will consider change,” Forward writes. “Whether or not meaningful cultural change occurs will depend on how the policy and program are put into practice and how issues are addressed once they are identified.”

Some entrepreneurs say having a welcoming and calm work environment means everything. But getting to that positive shift from a negative culture requires hard work and many difficult conversations, perhaps.

Some entrepreneurs say having a welcoming and calm work environment means everything #taketheleadwomen

Alexis Jones, founder of I AM THAT GIRL and ProtectHer Btold Makers: “Being an entrepreneur and being on the cutting edge of activism, it is very frustrating to work with systems that feel so ancient or archaic. But you have to learn how to let things roll off your back and know that you can’t win them all. How I’ve learned to deal with it is by saying, ‘Can you politely step aside, because there is someone who really does care.’”

The overriding sentiment is it does matter how people behave at work. It does matter if there is one over the top personality who manages to throw fits or be caustic in professional encounters. Just be sure you are never that person. And if you are in a management and leadership position, try to shift the behavior through policy shifts, positice role modeling and difficult conversations about expectations and behaviors. And if that is productive, make changes.

Avid Larizadeh Duggan General Partner, Google Ventures writes in World Economic Forum, “As you go along for the ride, make sure you treat people fairly. Be straightforward and honest. If you need to let people go, do so with respect. If things aren’t working out with someone in your company, it generally means that they are not working out on both sides. Your employee’s talent will be better used elsewhere and he will be happier when he feels appreciated. Help him get to his next job if you can. Relationships transcend the life of a start-up, therefore nurture them with care.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com