“Culture starts from the top,” it’s often said.
But is that really true?
Surely, it is easier to influence company culture when you’re at the top. As a CEO, founder, or business owner, people are already looking to you for example and guidance around what’s important within the team. (I wrote a bit about how you can influence culture as a leader here.)
However, being a leader in the company is not required to influence company culture. If you’re an employee or a middle manager and you’re frustrated with the status quo in your company, all is not lost.
Culture has nothing to do with what your job title on your business card says. It has everything to do with your beliefs, words, and actions as an individual.
Culture is made up of people after all — people who decide what artifacts, espoused values and beliefs, and basic underlying assumptions are true for a team. Any one person can influence culture, not just the CEO.
Regardless of what position you hold in the company, here are few ways you can create an environment for the culture you want to take form:
Model what you’d like to be true of your team.
Let’s say your CEO isn’t great about being responsive to emails and showing that she’s listening. If responsiveness is something you think should be a part of your company’s culture… the question is, how well do you respond to your own emails? When in a one-on-one or a meeting with your team, do you yourself do a good job yourself of listening to and responding to others’ requests? Look at yourself, first and foremost, as a starting point for the kind of company culture you aspire to have.
The power of modeling what you’d like your company culture to be is two-fold: (1) You make it known and visible what can be improved. And (2) if things start going well and your colleagues are really loving what you’re doing, someone — the CEO, founder, or business owner — is going to notice. She’s going to say, “Hmm maybe we all should start doing what you’re doing.”
In other words: Show what you’d like to better in the organization — don’t just wait for it to happen.
Dissent is a responsibility.
If there’s something you think could be better in the organization that the team should adopt to improve the culture, speak up. As an employee, dissent is a responsibility. Voice it respectfully, especially when the opportunity to give feedback presents itself. For example, in your last one-one-one meeting, when your manager or CEO asked you what could be improved, did you share a thoughtful answer?
Culture can only be intentionally shifted if it’s intentionally talked about.
It’s important to do this in private — no leader likes to be “blasted” in front of the company about what you think she is falling short of. (You can read more about how to give difficult feedback to your boss here.)
It’s also important to share your suggestion in the context of the team — and not just your own individual interests. For instance, it’s easy to say that you think the culture should be more open, especially around financials, because you think it’d help you better negotiate a raise. But instead, if you can share why transparent financials would help everyone on the team feel more bought on to what the company is trying to accomplish, the likelihood of others embracing what you’re looking to change increases.
Give space, grace, and gratitude to leaders.
It may take time for the rest of your company to catch on to how you’re trying to influence the company culture for the better. You may even get questions or resistance for why you’re doing things a certain way. Don’t be deterred. Understand that change takes time — especially cultural change, not to mention change that happens from the bottom up. Understand that your leaders are juggling many priorities, and that it may take repeated action for them to take note.
You can also thank your leaders in the meantime for the things they do that already reinforce and support the kind of culture you desire as an employee. There’s a lot of talk of the importance of employee recognition — but manager recognition is just as important. Leaders aren’t thanked very often, so it goes a long way to help solidify the culture you’re want to have, when you show appreciation for the things you already think are headed in the right direction.
Influencing culture from the bottom-up, and not just the top-down, is possible. Though, it may be more difficult and take more time to manifest, it’s an important route to seek as an employee or middle manager. If you can slowly yet steadily put energy behind shifting the culture, you not only make things better for yourself, but for others as well.
As an employee or middle manager, a better company culture can start with you.