Transforming Your Workplace Culture When You’re Not the Boss

If you'd prefer to skip to The Bottom Line, please scroll all the way down. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the entire post.

How would you like for your workplace to be a source of inspiration? Imagine that! For most of us, it’s a foreign concept and perhaps a bit naïve, even absurd, to think that the workplace could be a source of inspiration for employees. We live in a world where most—though not all—workplaces have been relegated to being sources of stress and agony. Our work is often seen as a necessary evil that we must put up with simply because we need to make a living; a place we go to trade our vitality and energy for a paycheck and then go home frustrated and kick the dog. There are, of course, those workplaces that buck this trend, but the truth is most workplaces wouldn’t qualify as a “source of inspiration” by any means.

Unfortunately, many of us have accepted that this is about as good as it gets and have chosen to keep our heads down and stay out of trouble, rather than rock the boat by trying to make things better. We may be secretly wishing we had more authority or fantasizing about how we would handle things if one day we were the boss. There are also those of us who might be fed up enough that we are ready to do something but we have no idea where to start. For those of you who are in either camp, the good news is that you don’t have to be the boss to start a transformation at your workplace. You may not have ultimate power and authority to make all the decisions, and your progress may be hindered by some of the policies and practices over which you don’t have direct influence, but if you are truly committed to transforming the experience of your workplace, there is a lot you can do to make it happen no matter where you are on the organizational chart. This post is intended to encourage you to take on leading a culture transformation exactly where you are right now and give you some ideas on how you might make that happen.

Before we get into specific suggestions on actions you can take, let’s talk about what distinguishes a workplace that is a source of inspiration from those that aren’t. The Great Place to Work® Institute, which is the organization that identifies Fortune magazine’s best companies to work for every year has narrowed down the criteria to three factors. They are: trust in leadership, camaraderie with the people we work with, and pride in the work we do. They further break trust down into three factors of credibility, respect, and fairness. Without these factors in place, a workplace is simply never going to be a source of inspiration; I don’t care how many pizzas and donuts you serve, or how many times you try to motivate people with extrinsic rewards like pay and benefits, or how many times you send your employees to training classes. People may stay in a job longer because the pay is good, and they may do their job to avoid getting fired, but the pay and benefits are never what inspires them to give their utmost in the long run.

As we all know, a trustworthy leader who has credibility, respects people, and is fair always makes a huge difference for those he/she is responsible for. If your leader falls into this category, you are very fortunate and can immediately get in action on the suggestions that follow in this post, knowing that your efforts will most likely be bolstered by a leader who supports you. If, however, you are one of the many who don’t consider your boss necessarily sufficiently endowed with these qualities of credibility, respect, and fairness, I’m here to encourage you. I can tell you from personal experience, it won’t be easy, but I can also tell you that it is totally worth it to declare yourself the one and make great things happen despite the lack of support from your boss(es).

In case you’re still not convinced, please consider that while the boss may have a lot more influence on the policies, and structure, and so on, people’s everyday experiences are largely shaped by the quality of interactions they have with each other and by the value they place on the work that they are doing. To give a personal example, I used to have a toxic boss who would leave the people in my organization completely deflated and demotivated after just about every visit and every interaction. It was tough at first, but once we all figured out we weren’t going to get our energy and motivation from that person, we found a way to pull ourselves back together and motivate each other in the wake of those interactions. We relied on the 90% of the interactions we had that didn’t involve the boss, as a source of inspiration, instead of letting the 10% that involved that person demotivate and demoralize us.

I should explain that I don’t mean to demonize all leaders and my intention is not to mobilize people against their leaders. In fact, I know that many leaders have the best of intentions and they are often misunderstood by the people in their organizations. Sometimes we tend to want the leader to magically solve all our problems and it’s just not that simple. As a leader myself, I have been the beneficiary of people’s trust and their honest feedback and I always appreciated that they didn’t give up on me when I wasn’t exactly at my best, and I would encourage you not to give up on your leader when their behavior may be less than ideal in your mind. I also don’t mean to minimize the impact of leaders on the culture and let them off the hook and put the monkey on the backs of the employees.

However, this post is aimed at empowering you to get in action, even if you are not the boss and even if you don’t see your boss being enlightened anytime soon. The fact of the matter is that your boss is not responsible for making your workplace a source of inspiration for you; that’s your job! You could have the most enlightened boss to ever walk the face of the planet, but if you didn’t focus on doing what you had to do to transform your own experience of your workplace, that boss couldn’t magically do it for you. The contrary is true as well; you could have the most demoralizing boss ever, and yet still be enthusiastic about coming to work every day. An important first step in the right direction is to take full responsibility for your morale and be willing to take steps to either accept or change the triggers that negatively affect it.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions for you to consider regarding the mindset you ought to adopt and actions you ought to take to cause a transformation in your workplace culture, starting from exactly where you are:

  1. Stop using “I’m not the boss” as an excuse – I have news for you. Even your boss is not the boss because he/she has a boss, too. Even the CEO is accountable to the Board of Directors and the shareholders. So, everybody could technically absolve themselves of responsibility using the excuse that they don’t get to freely make all the decisions. There is one person you are always the boss of, and there is one leader who you cannot help but follow, and that is yourself. The sooner you start acting like it, and start working with what you have, the sooner you will see results.
     
  2. Commit yourself fully to changing a specific aspect of the culture – Actually, being committed is different than hoping and wishing and occasionally making an effort to make it look like you are committed. 100% commitment means you declare yourself the one and accept full responsibility for changing thing, and you go to work on the outcome you want to create, with consistency and determination in spite of whatever obstacles come your way.
     
  3. Work inside your circle of influence, not your circle of concern – Years ago, when I was a plant manager, I had delegated something and had not done the proper follow-through to make sure it had been done. I was like the emperor with no clothes, thinking everything was fine until one young man who worked on the floor came into my office one day and informed me that I was talking the talk but not walking the walk! While dozens of people were talking about me, he came and talked to me. He didn’t have direct control of the situation but the one thing he could do to influence it was to come and talk to me, and so that’s what he did. I appreciated his honesty and immediately got to work on correcting the situation, and for the next several years I always went to him to get straight feedback on how I was doing. His influence continued to grow and he has had four promotions since then, last time I checked. Your influence can grow too, if you ask yourself next time you are frustrated about something, “What is the one thing I can do to influence the situation?” and then go out and actually do it.
     
  4.  Make up for what your boss lacks – Dwelling on your boss’s inadequacies will not make things better for the organization. If he/she is not great at recognizing others, initiate as many recognitions as you can between others from where you are. If he/she is not great at providing timely feedback, ask him/her specific questions about your performance and what you could do better in the future. Figure out what makes people most frustrated about what the boss doesn’t bring to the party and role-model making up for it, and mobilize others to do the same.
     
  5. Transform your “transactionships” back into relationships – We all want to feel valued and respected. Unfortunately, as we focus on getting the job done, our interactions lose the personal touch and the routine, “How are you doing?” and “Fine, you?” becomes completely meaningless. What if you paused to look someone in the eye and actually acknowledge their presence as a whole person while you were doing your work. What if you took a moment and showed some interest in the other person, even if that meant you would deviate from your “transactionship” for a minute? This doesn’t have to take a lot of time and it also doesn’t mean that you have to ask about intimate details of everybody’s family and their favorite sports team and so on every time you need something from them. It just means you truly acknowledge the person as a whole person and demonstrate to them that you care about them, in the same way that you would appreciate others doing that for you.
     
  6. Stop tolerating negativity and start positive conversations – If you are in a toxic work environment, there is sure to be a lot of negative talk. How about personally role-modeling that, although venting is necessary sometimes, it is not a healthy way of life. This doesn’t mean you have zero tolerance for venting. It just means that in addition to helping people get things off their chest, you help them identify the next step they can take to make things better and help them focus on the positive aspects of the situation.
     
  7. Organize activities to help the less fortunate as a team – We used to volunteer at a homeless shelter fairly regularly at the plant I was responsible for. I found the experience to bring so much peace to our lives. The employees who participated were much more tolerant and less stressed because they were reminded of just how blessed we all are. Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone use this as a way to manipulate people into tolerating low standards in their life, but rather as a way to encourage them and offer some beneficial perspective while they work at improving things on the job.

All of these points may not apply to you, but if one does, make it yours and take it for a spin. If it doesn’t work, don’t get discouraged. Do more of it. People may think you’re acting weird, but in a situation where normal is to tolerate the status quo and complain about it, I think weird is awesome.
 

THE Bottom Line:

If you have ever wished that you were the boss and fantasized about what you would do if you had the power to change things to improve the morale at your workplace, I’d encourage you to read this post and take some of the actionable ideas in it for a test drive today. Discover the massive power of starting right where you are and working with what you have to work with rather than waiting for your boss to be enlightened. I’m convinced that applying just a couple of the suggestions I make in this post will not only dramatically improve how you feel about your workplace, it will begin to create ripple effects that will create a tsunami of good in your workplace.


Getting in action and staying in action on improving your workplace culture is not easy. We all fall off the wagon sometimes and we all need a little encouragement to move forward. My blog posts are intended to provide encouragement and helpful suggestions and I am so appreciative to you for reading, sharing and commenting on my posts. I also know that reading a 2-3 page post may not be for everyone (and even less so for my longer posts). That’s why I am excited to announce the launch of The Transformative Leader Podcast later this fall. Please take a few minutes to check out the very first preview episode, share with colleagues and friends, and subscribe. As always, feedback and thoughts are more than welcome! I'd love to hear what you think and what you'd like for me to touch on. Head over to the podcast page to leave me a voicemail, or comment below with questions/topics/feedback.

Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at amir@theghannadgroup.com.

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