Business Leadership Today

Your Work Culture Might Suck – How A Leader Can Improve Their Culture


Mark S. Babbitt, Contributor
S. Chris Edmonds, Contributor

Many business leaders believe their work culture is better than most. However, if your work environment is like most, chances are your culture—at least according to the majority of your employees—just might suck. Or worse.

In a 2023 study by the American Psychological Association, 19% of American workers said their workplace was toxic. The same percentage reported that they had been the target of discrimination in their workplaces, which clearly indicates a less-than-fulfilling work culture.

Your work culture might be healthier than that. Or, it may not be as healthy as you think.

Gallup’s latest research found troubling workplace numbers. The “lowlights” for United States employees include:

  • Only 23% strongly agree that they trust their organization’s leadership.
  • A mere 23% of respondents strongly agree they receive appropriate recognition for their work.
  • 51% of currently employed workers around the globe say they’re actively seeking a new job (about the same number believe it’s an excellent time to find a job closer to home).
  • Only 20% of employees feel connected to their organization’s culture (meaning four out of five employees are disengaged from their company’s “why”).

Though it may seem impossible to achieve, leaders can improve these numbers by improving their organizations’ workplace culture. 

To improve their culture, a leader must take immediate action to restore respect throughout their organization and make it as important as results. They must also define, align, and refine culture and drive change by serving as chief role models for that change. 

This article will explore these three critical elements required for culture change and provide a proven methodology that builds an engaging, uncompromising work culture.

What Do Employees Think of Your Work Culture?

Even if you choose not to ask directly, there are indicators that might reveal a culture that sucks:

  • Old-school leadership practices—“my way or the highway”
  • Disrespectful treatment by bosses and colleagues
  • Withholding information
  • Lack of diversity or inclusion
  • Bullying
  • Sexual harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Unfair compensation and benefits 
  • Unethical decisions and actions

Any one of these indicators provides social proof that your work culture is in trouble. Two or more indicators reveal a seriously broken—and perhaps even toxic—work culture.

A broken work culture (or worse) won’t fix itself. Senior leaders must take immediate action to stop the bleeding. Specifically, leaders must actively restore respect throughout their company.

Restoring respect and driving culture change isn’t easy. So many leaders struggle with “how” to lead sustainable change. It’s not their fault. 

After all, few senior leaders have ever experienced successful culture change themselves. Even fewer have led a successful culture refinement effort. 

Further complicating this issue: Many times, leaders are part of the company culture problem, and we can’t ask employees to change their behavior if leaders aren’t willing to change theirs.

Despite these challenges, the benefits of creating and sustaining an engaging, uncompromising work culture are powerful and undeniable.

  • 40% gain in employee experience
  • 40% increase in customer service ratings
  • 35% gain in results and profits
  • 100% gain in retention of key talent
  • 250% increase in employee referrals

A lousy work culture quashes these desirable benefits.

There is a proven methodology that builds on the best possible foundation for not just increasing respect in the workplace but also managing performance.

Three Critical (Yet Practical) Elements Required for Culture Change

Our process, proven to work in organizations from start-ups to non-profits to Fortune 100 companies, centers on three critical elements required for change:

1. Respect Must Be as Equally Important as Results

In Good Comes First: How Today’s Leaders Create an Uncompromising Company Culture That Doesn’t Suck, we unequivocally state that senior leaders must build a culture where respect (how well we treat each other at work) must be just as important as results (how well we get our work done). 

Especially in the divisive times we live in today, employees must know they’ll experience respect while being validated for their aligned ideas, efforts, and contributions—every day. 

We can’t define what “good” means to any organization, though; there is no one recipe that meets everyone’s or every company’s needs. The definition of “good,” therefore, is strictly up to the purpose, strategies, and goals—and especially the desired culture—of each specific organization. 

This brings us to our second critical change element. 

2. Company Culture Must Be Defined (Then Aligned and Refined)

Senior leaders formalize their definition of “good,” starting with defining:

  • Their organization’s servant purpose (their “reason for being”—other than turning a profit)
  • Their ideal work culture; specifically, by defining the values and behaviors (observable and measurable) people can expect to experience every day

Once defined and socialized, leaders must immediately begin modeling the values and behaviors defined in their ideal work culture—every day and in every interaction. Otherwise, it becomes beyond complicated to make respect as important as results.

3. Senior Leaders Must Drive Change (And Serve as Chief Role Models of That Change)

We cannot stress this enough: Throughout this culture-changing process, senior leaders cannot delegate responsibility for culture change to Human Resources, other key personnel, or even an organizational development group. 

From what must be a top-down initiative, senior leadership must own sole responsibility for the change and live by example for every aspect of that change effort.

After all, only senior leaders can:

  1. Change policies in the systemic manner required
  2. Fund the process for the 18–24 month timeframe that is often necessary for a successful change initiative
  3. Provide social proof that this change initiative starts with them; they must serve as Chief Role Models

Should a company fail in these three critical areas, stakeholders will see the culture change initiative as nothing more than lip service. 

Invariably, employees learn that if leaders aren’t held accountable for living the servant purpose and modeling defined values, those leaders can’t or won’t hold employees accountable. Sometimes, despite their best efforts, the culture won’t change. 

A Living Example of an Accountable Culture Leader

One leader who embodies these foundational practices is Tamara McCleary, founder and CEO of Thulium. As we were writing Good Comes First, we spoke with Tamara about the responsibility of a modern leader to care enough about their people to make showing respect a top priority. 

Tamara states that:

“The purpose of leadership today isn’t just to drive results. Today’s leaders must engage and inspire team members to align to shared values and goals while achieving desired business outcomes within a purposeful company culture. Leaders can’t engage and inspire if they don’t love their servant purpose first, then their people.”

Tamara clarifies that driving results is exactly half the leader’s job. The other half is driving respect. Making respect as important as results is how highly regarded companies thrive. 

Companies like Radio Flyer, Stryker, Five Below, and Desert Sage Health Centers have discovered this secret and now embed respect in their daily interactions.

Sometimes, We Must Unlearn What We Know

To create and sustain an uncompromising work culture, and to make real change not only possible but probable, business leaders must set aside Industrial Age beliefs and assumptions. 

In today’s world, command-and-control approaches don’t inspire your players and teams; on the contrary, those approaches discourage them.

One of our core culture models, the Performance-Values Matrix, shown here, describes four possible combinations of values (respect) and performance (results) for all players. 

Only the upper right quadrant shows the desired combination of alignment to defined values (high values match) and the ability to meet or exceed performance expectations (high performance match). 

Players in this “green-green” quadrant expect—and contribute to—a purposeful, positive, and productive work culture; they are typically excellent citizens while doing great work.

When leading culture change, many leaders consider their primary goal to move all contributors to the “green-green” quadrant: high values match and high performance match.

The three orange quadrants indicate the less desirable outcomes and behaviors—low-performance match, low-values match, or both. 

For players who currently fall into any of these orange quadrants, the goal must be—through modeling, measuring, coaching, mentoring, and, as that contributor makes progress, celebrating—to move that individual to “green-green.”

Learning to Measure Respect and Results

Senior leaders need effective performance management and complementary, yet practical, values management to make culture change a reality.

To many leaders, measuring results comes easily. Or, at least, measuring performance (meeting quotas and production milestones, for example) seems built into their existing processes because the agreement between contributor and company comes down to some form of:

  • Specific, agreed-upon, measurable performance (and perhaps safety) standards
  • Consistent accountability for players and teams to deliver the results as defined

Measuring results, though, no matter how organic it feels, is no longer enough. 

Again, driving results is exactly half a leader’s job.

To ensure an inspiring company culture, leaders must now drive respect. And just like we can’t determine performance traction without setting clear expectations and measuring progress, we can’t measure values alignment without a mechanism for assessing values demonstration.

In our work with hundreds of clients over the past 30 years, NONE of those companies effectively managed results and respect consistently. 

Specific performance expectations are not always defined or agreed to in most companies. Worse, accountability for those results can be wildly inconsistent, even among teams within the same company.

Poor clarity of results standards and inconsistent expectations (and accountability) for results too often lead to poor performance, employee frustration, customer disappointment, revenue shortfalls, and, eventually, burnout. 

With coaching and discipline, leaders can learn to embed clear performance expectations and implement rock-solid accountability for results over time. Leaders must monitor progress, study performance data, and celebrate milestones and accomplishments daily.

The same is true for respect. But how do leaders simultaneously manage results and respect effectively in their daily interactions?

Yes, We Can Measure Respect (Values)

Once leaders start measuring alignment to values, many realize this should have become part of their dashboard long ago. The key is to keep it as simple as measuring results.

With that in mind, the measurement of values uses a familiar process: 

  • Specific, agreed-upon observable, measurable values—defined in behavioral terms
  • Consistent accountability for players and teams to demonstrate defined, valued behaviors in every interaction

We know what you’re thinking. “You can’t measure values at work!!”

It’s true—too often, organizations define company values in aspirational terms designed to inspire. In most organizations, values are vague references to hoped-for positive relationships in the workplace. 

Aspirational values are not measurable. However, specific valued behaviors are tangible and observable.

Defined Values and Behaviors

We guide senior leaders to formalize their company values (no more than the five that matter most) and then specify observable, tangible, measurable behaviors (three to four behaviors per value) that describe precisely how people should treat others in daily interactions. 

Here are some examples from our clients:

  • To model a company value labeled “teamwork,” one client includes this value-defining behavior:

“In every interaction, I operate from my best self, with patience, respect, and responsiveness.”

  • Another client used this important behavior for their “service” value:

“I act with urgency to resolve customer challenges.”

  • For their “mutual respect” value, another client included this valued behavior:

“I use active listening skills to hear others’ complete thoughts before speaking, give eye contact while they talk, and let them know I value their ideas.”

As you can see, these statements are observable, tangible, and measurable. Without being open to interpretation and without the risk of redefining, they clarify the values the company leaders crafted, bringing vital clarity to how stakeholders demonstrate values alignment.

With valued behaviors, there is no question in leaders’ and team members’ minds about how they should treat their bosses, peers, suppliers, customers, and community members—with respect and validation.

Knowing is different from doing. Leaders and team members may understand the workplace behaviors expected of them, but do they actually behave according to those valued behaviors? 

You won’t know until you measure.

Measuring Values and Behaviors

Our proven approach uses employee surveys—customized for their unique values and their unique valued behaviors—to gather feedback about values demonstration.

Surveys ask employees to rate how well their leader models the company’s defined valued behaviors in daily interactions. Feedback is confidential; we diligently ensure we don’t attribute scores to any respondent.

We use a six-point scale (1 to 6) for employee ratings of valued behaviors. Desirable scores are at the 5 and 6 levels, which indicate respondents “agree” or “strongly agree” that their direct boss models that specific valued behavior.

Scores in the 1 to 4 range are not desirable. These ratings indicate respondents do not see their direct boss modeling that valued behavior consistently.

In one client’s recent survey of executive team members, two senior leaders were rated very differently for this question: “My direct boss offers her/his time and assistance to other team members to serve and meet their needs daily.” On our 1-6 scale, the operations leader averaged a 5.6 rating, while the department leader averaged a 4.5 rating. 

A score of 5.6 isn’t just outstanding; it’s a testament to the operations leader’s exceptional role modeling of valued behaviors. This score is a reflection of the leader’s consistent demonstration of these behaviors, as observed by the employees. 

What’s remarkable is the consistency of this excellence across all valued behaviors. The operations leader didn’t just shine in one aspect of their survey—they excelled across the board.

A 4.5 rating for the department leader indicates employees do not see that leader modeling that behavior. Just as concerning, the department head’s ratings for the overall survey questions averaged less than 4.0, far below expectations for any leader. 

In response, his direct boss has created a development plan to help this leader increase the demonstration of every valued behavior in daily interactions.

This is how we measure values: thoroughly, objectively, and confidentially. 

As we start measuring and taking action based on the data collected, we can begin to change culture—not for the sake of change, but by following actual data to an actionable conclusion: demonstrated respect in daily interactions.

Unless you measure respect, you can’t improve respect levels.

Don’t Leave the Quality of Your Work Culture to Chance

The president of one of our clients said it best:

“I used to see my job as managing results… Now I see my job as removing employee frustrations.”

As this president learned, to maximize results, leaders must minimize frustrations, which often come in the form of disrespect. 

Create an uncompromising work culture—that doesn’t suck—by deliberately defining your desired culture and aligning all plans, decisions, and actions to that culture. 

Then, just as carefully as you measure results, measure respect in your workplace. Then, continually refine players and practices based on objective data and through holding everyone accountable for living your desired culture.

This is how we—and now you—change company culture.

Mark S. Babbitt is President of WorqIQ, a firm that helps organizations understand leadership’s impact on culture, the company’s collective level of Workplace Intelligence (WQ), and what “good” means to them. He is also the author of the best-selling book, Good Comes First.

S. Chris Edmonds is a speaker, executive consultant, and founder of The Purposeful Culture Group.  He’s also the author of two Amazon best sellers: Good Comes First and The Culture Engine

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