Identifying a poor work environment, and some things you can do about it

Here's a link to a useful article "Fight the Nine Symptoms of Corporate Decline" by Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Harvard Business Review HBR Blog network (free when you register). Here are the warning signs Kanter identifies:
  • Communication decreases
  • Criticism and blame increase
  • Respect decreases
  • Isolation increases
  • Focus turns inward
  • Rifts widen and inequities grow
  • Aspirations diminish
  • Initiative decreases
  • Negativity spreads
Though the examples may be from private business, the symptoms can occur in not-for-profits too. In fact, I've worked in places with some or all of these symptoms, and she's right, they are a warning of troubled times. This is a good checklist to use to take the temperature of your office. But just because you see a warning sign, you're not necessarily on an extended downward slide. Kanter continues with some ways to shift a culture to more successful habits:

  • Keep communication open and information flowing. Foster widespread problem-solving dialogue. Face facts openly and honestly.
  • Emphasize personal responsibility. Refuse to listen to attacks on others and ask each person to take responsibility for his or her part of a problem.
  • Model respect for talent and achievements at every level. Offer frequent public thanks. Praise those who meet high standards while helping poor performers improve (or weeding them out if they don't).
  • Convene conversations across groups. Involve diverse cross-cutting teams in problem-solving.
  • Stress common purpose. Communicate inspiring goals larger than any individual or group. Find a grand challenge to unite people.
  • Work on reducing inequities and status differences. Require the privileged to mentor and help others. Spread extra resources to many groups, and encourage joint projects or shared service. Provide opportunities for learning and growth.
  • Raise aspirations. Use small wins to show the potential for bigger successes. Encourage realistic stretch goals and offer people the help to reach them.
  • Reward initiative. Provide time or small grants to work on new ideas. Make brainstorming a habit.
  • Reinforce the positive by saying and demonstrating that change is possible. Ignore the voices of negativity.
Common sense, yes. But hard to do unless you are really thinking about your environment.

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