Cultures are not simple: Why work cultures cannot be ‘fixed’

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Leaders today are hearing more and more that toxic and ineffective work cultures are top contributors to employee churn and lackluster talent acquisition. In fact, Mandy Haskett shared not too long ago the MIT Sloan School of Management found “toxic workplace culture” was the chief driver of the Great Resignation (outpacing both pay and burnout across all industries). So, what can be done? Are solutions out there or are we stuck with the reality that work cultures cannot be fixed?

Ask an expert

To get started, ADVISA’s Director of Marketing Lauren Littlefield (LL) sat down with one of ADVISA’s Leadership Consultants and Coaches, Patrick Howe (PH), to dig into the root causes of ineffective cultures. Instead of summarizing the discussion, here’s a transcript of the conversation.

LL: Recently, you shared with me the concept of complicated vs. complex from author Aaron Dignan in his book, Brave New Work. You gave the example of an engine as complicated. It has lots of moving parts and if something goes wrong, there are tools to diagnose what’s not working anymore. In contrast, the weather is complex. You can’t “fix” the weather. In the talk you gave, you said culture was complex. Can you expand on that?

PH: Sure. Yes, work cultures are complex. Complex things have multiple layers operating at the same time with multiple influences. And as you add and subtract people in a culture, guess what? It changes. People are impacted by their connections and environment. Think about you if you’ve shown up, as a leader, starkly different on a Tuesday than you do on a Wednesday. People and their behavior are constantly affecting the culture. We can all influence the culture, but we can’t cure or fix cultures.

Identify what’s working and what’s not

LL: Is that something you hear often? “We need to fix our culture?”

PH: Yes, people like to be able to fix things—their culture or their people. I think that’s very hard and very challenging. It’s almost self-defeating because it’s too much pressure to put on any one person: to cure what their environment looks like. I think that’s a problem with society in a general, right? Everybody is trying to find their version of perfection, but it doesn’t exist because people are involved and people are complex and wired differently. And because we are all wired differently, we have different needs and exhibit different behaviors. So, we can’t fix and cure people to fit our idea of a perfect culture.

LL: Given that work cultures are complex and can’t be fixed, what can leaders do? At ADVISA, we start with data to diagnose what’s going on within an organization as it relates to leadership and culture. So, how do diagnostic tools like our Leadership + Culture Assessment help with complex challenges?

PH: Rarely will a leader know the root cause of a problem, but they can recognize something is wrong. The diagnosis piece is really informative because it can shine a light on how each leader and the leadership team, as a whole, are perceived versus what’s intended. Our diagnosis can really help illuminate what’s working and what’s not. For example, maybe employees view their level of loyalty, the organization, or the level of competency of a leader much differently than the leaders themselves. That self-awareness, the diagnosis piece of “what do people really think and believe” about the organization is critical.

Get clear on culture

LL: We’ve talked in the past about how perks are not culture. They certainly impact the work culture in some way, but just because an office has a ping pong table and a beer fridge doesn’t mean it has an effective culture. Do you think there’s confusion on what culture really is and how we measure its effectiveness?

PH: Yes, and I would argue another thing that seems to be happening is related to Best Places to Work and other similar lists. While they are excellent achievements, leaders celebrate these wins as if they were full indicators of employee engagement and culture effectiveness, but they’re not. Further, many of the awards or honors are published in the first half of the year and things can change. Acquisitions happen, there are shifts in teams and projects, a new leader arrives, etc… but we’re still hanging our hat on Best Places to Work when really the river has changed and adapted. You know saying,

“No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”


Meaning the water is always moving, shifting through the rocks and impacted by changes in weather. Similarly, people change too, right? Like we talked about earlier, how someone comes into work on Tuesday could be completely different on Wednesday—especially for those who lack self-awareness and emotional intelligence. If we’re just hanging our hat on an award we won in January to be our culture benchmark, we’re not thinking about how the culture or our people have and are changing. If we’re not consistently and intentionally nurturing the culture, it’s sets leaders up for failure.

Start with leaders… at every level

LL: OK, so culture is always changing, people are always changing, but even the best cultures and the most effective leaders are faced with challenges at some point. How can they bounce back or right their course to stay on track?

PH: Many leadership or executive teams think culture is solely their responsibility. And, sadly, a lot of front-line leaders think it’s the executive team’s job, too. But the reality is leaders at every level are culture carriers, not just the CEO or the folks who sit around the boardroom table. While the executive team might align on what the culture should look like, the mission, vision and values, they often overlook how that trickles down and what it looks like for other leaders. Every leader is carrying the culture in their subset of the organization. So, another reason for gathering data around how people view culture, leadership, and their loyalty to the organization is to find the gaps so you can make a plan to fill them.

LL: You’ve said before the front-line leaders are the window through which employees experience the organization’s culture. So, whether a person is working at headquarters, a satellite office, or even remotely, the manager they report to is their representation of the culture.

PH: For sure. We always say there are no inconsequential conversations. They all matter. And I think that’s where culture gets incredibly tough to navigate sometimes because you hear leaders say, “We have a trusting environment. We have an open-door policy.” But the first time a front-line supervisor doesn’t live that out, the culture suffers. Every conversation matters. It’s a constant feeding of the culture machine rather than a single event. It’s the little moments at the water cooler and the one-on-one conversations in the break room. That’s why those front-line leaders are so critical.

Focus on little moments

LL: Right, so the culture team members experience under their front-line leader is the organizational culture to them. Each team may have a different experience but executive teams need to ensure their front-line and mid-level folks have the skills and tools they need to carry the culture?

PH: Yes. I think a key takeaway from our conversation is this: Your culture is made from the little moments, not the big moments. So many people want culture to be a thing that we fix and cure in big block moments. But I would argue it’s little grains of sand all day long that are happening—every conversation matters and every level of leader needs to be bought in to it. Ineffective cultures can’t be solved with a beer fridge or a picnic.

LL: What about those leaders who have made a mistake? The ones who don’t live out the culture. Can they recover?

PH: One hundred percent. Leaders need to know they can make things better. Upon reflection, if a leader feels like what they said or did wasn’t in line with the intended culture, they should have the ability to address it head on with their team or employee. And that’s not easy. It takes empathy and vulnerability to say, “I don’t like how that conversation went last Friday. Here’s what I really intended to have happen.” That ability is enabled by the culture and made possible through skill development that aligns with the values of the organization.

Ineffective work cultures can be improved

When it comes to ineffective work cultures, it’s not one event person or team that’s causing friction. It’s the result of all the little moments, impacted by leaders (at every level). That’s why leaders need tools to diagnose what’s working and what’s not so they can design a plan to change. ADVISA has been working with organizations for over 37 years to create places where people love to work. Stop losing talent to better jobs and managers and create a work environment where the best and brightest want to be. Reach out today to learn more and don’t miss these additional resources below.


Check out Patrick Howe’s most recent article: “The 3 P’s for Greater Effectiveness of Frontline Leaders.”

Don’t miss our last Q&A with Leadership + Organization Development Specialist Krista Warn on employee engagement and loyalty.