One Issue – or a Culture/Systems Problem?

You’re a relatively new manager in a medium-sized division with about 200 employees. Over the past few months you’ve noticed some disturbing things:

  • One day, you heard a few men gathered together in the breakroom laughing, but they stopped and looked down when you walked in. You never found out what they were laughing about, but it all felt pretty uncomfortable.
  • One of your newer female subordinates whose last name is French tells you some of the guys are referring to her as “Frenchie.” She doesn’t like it, but tells you she’s not sure if it’s just the guys being friendly, or it really has sexual overtones. She doesn’t want to make a big deal of it, but…
  • You know that a pretty talented junior staff member has been applying for promotions both within and outside the division, but isn’t getting them. You’re not sure why, though you’ve heard some rumors about him living with another man. You don’t know if there’s a connection, but…
  • One of your male subordinates (he’s a pretty conservative, rather religious fellow) brought you a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, told you it had been in one of the restrooms for a few weeks, and asked you if that was ok.
  • A supervisor who reports to you tells you that a couple of the men on his staff got into a heavy (and loud argument). “F-bombs” were flying, and one told the other he was going to “punch your lights out.” The supervisor stepped in to end the confrontation.

Any one of these might be just something that sometimes happens in the workplace: you need to address it, but just treat it as a “one off” and be done with it. But you’re this new manager. You’re seeing a number of disturbing things. What’s going on here?

If you find yourself with a laundry list of “people issues” in the workplace, you clearly need to address the individuals involved and find out what’s going on. However, if this is what you’re seeing, you also need to take a broader, culture and systems perspective. You need to look at them as a totality to see whether there are cultural or systemic issues at work here.

Here are some questions you might want to ask:

  1. What is it about our culture that is creating these issues? (Dig deep! Keep asking, “why?”)
  2. What does our culture tell employees about how they should behave at work? How do I know?
  3. Do we have clear expectations for employee behavior? If yes, what are they?
  4. If yes, do we continually communicate those expectations?
  5. If we have clear expectations, do our leaders demonstrate those behaviors – or do we live in a “do as we say, not as we do” world?
  6. Do our leaders talk about their expectations in a supportive, coaching way – or do they use them as a club with which to hit employees?
  7. Have we trained managers, supervisors and employees so that everyone is on the same page concerning our expectations?
  8. Do all employees feel safe to bring issues to their supervisors and know they will be heard, and not punished or ridiculed, and that the issues will be addressed?
  9. Do employees (and supervisors and managers) have the communication skills to address issues when they come up?
  10. How do we involve managers, supervisors and employees in addressing workplace issues? Is it the boss’s responsibility – or everyone’s responsibility?

These are just a few of the questions you should ask to determine what’s going on. Remember that if you do have systems or culture issues, addressing individual employee behaviors will likely not make a dent in changing the culture/system. That requires a larger, more comprehensive effort. Know that doing so will be hard and long. But if you find yourself with a workplace that requires a culture or systems-level change, remember that you didn’t get here overnight. It can be changed for the better – but it will take a serious commitment and lots of time. That commitment starts when you identify that you have a culture or system that needs changing, and identify the evidence you have (like the list of issues that have been brought to you) to prompt you to go down this road.

Have you faced multiple issues in your workplace, and seen that those are the result of the culture or systems you have? Let us hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider

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