How to Break a Negative Culture Cycle

Even if we work in our dream job, we’ve all been there. We’ve been in a job where we simply feel stuck and unsatisfied. In most cases, we know why – or at least we think we do. Our manager isn’t helping us out. Policies are preventing progress. The culture simply stinks.

But according to Chris Armstrong at our Next Generation of Government Training Summit, the first step to becoming unstuck and breaking that cycle of negative thinking is to reframe the symptoms of your malaise. “A lot of times we get stuck because we believe we are stuck,” Armstrong said. “And then, we’ll blame that stuckage on leadership or on policies. Those are just symptoms.”

The deeper issue is a culture one, rooted in yourself and in your coworkers who have creative a collective environment.

Armstrong is the Culture Executive at National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, meaning he investigates, surfaces, and resolves culture issues for a job. In his work, he’s found that it’s not policies or leadership that bring about a negative culture. Instead, Armstrong suggests that create collective culture. And when he says people, he really does mean people – plural.

“When it comes to culture, we’re not talking about individuals,” he explained. “We’re talking about social norms and collective regard.”

Culture is a collective endeavor. For that reason, it can seem daunting to change. How do you change multiple people to believe in one, positive new result? Armstrong thinks it can be done. “First and foremost, I always hvae to get people to believe that they can actually do something,” he said.

The key is to first recognize that culture is a shared human endeavor and then making connections between those collective feelings and policies.

Another NextGen attendee came on stage to share her story as a Diversity Officer in the current government. She agreed completely with Armstrong, despite having no idea what he was going to say. “It’s not about specific people, it’s about connections,” she said. “Are we moving connections forward and fostering them? That’s how we change culture.”

That not only means fostering more sharing among employees. It also means connecting leadership and policies to these people – what Armstrong called “balancing the head and the heart” – in ways that help employees understand and embrace their organizations and missions.

Armstrong lamented that every year he sees the same complaints on agency employee satisfaction surveys – everything from lack of resources to bad communication and poor leadership. However, he also sees multiple policies put in place to address those issues. So why does he keep seeing the same culprits at the top of the list?

Those changes aren’t addressing the human component of culture. They aren’t taking the time to meaningfully connect the people impacted by policies to those very regulations, tactics and procedures. Only when those connections are created and fostered will there be real change and a break in the cycle of cultural negativity.

What’s the alternative? As Armstrong concluded, “This is a serious question that, if ignored, can make everything we work for fall by the way side. We cannot let that happen. We are the collective and we’ll decide the new norms.”

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