What's your work culture like? It depends on who your boss is

  • Patricia Carl

    Patricia Carl

By Patricia Carl
Highland Performance Solutions
Updated 10/13/2022 11:31 AM

Two employees from different departments are talking.

The first says: "This company has terrible culture. Everyone gossips, people play favorites and you never know where you stand. I never know if I'm doing a good job."


The second employee looks perplexed. "Really? I think we have great culture. Things are transparent and everybody's contribution seems to count. In fact, the feedback and development opportunities are why I stay."

Great workplace culture is a much sought after, coveted designation for companies. While most companies work to drive one overarching culture, department leaders have enormous influence in creating and reinforcing the culture in their teams. These microcultures contribute to, and really define, the holistic culture employees experience every day.

Microcultures are the specific ways of working within different teams or groups in the company. A large department can have several microcultures within it -- each with their own sets of workplace norms, communication styles and flexible working situations. The tone of each microculture depends not only on the leader's style, but also the interactions among team members. This is why, when asking two people from the same company what their experience is, you might get strikingly different responses. They experience the same company culture-building benefits like vacation perks and flexible working schedules but can also experience a tale of two microcultures.

As leaders, microcultures are not something to shy away from but rather lean into by supporting a positive environment and empowering others to uphold it. Here are ways leaders can cultivate positive microcultures:

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1. Prioritize and encourage belonging and inclusion.

Make sure your team knows that connecting and supporting each other is a priority and that you help to build upon their connections. Establish rituals -- both career-focused and social-focused -- to help your team see and feel that they share a strong, positive group identity.

Relatedly, do not enable cliquish behavior. It's fine to develop close relationships with certain colleagues (according to Gallup research, having a best friend at work helps with engagement), but it should not serve to exclude others.

2. Create weekly connection points.

Meet with your people regularly. Leaders should make it known that their doors -- real or virtual -- are open. They should also make it clear that these meetings are not just for rattling through to-do lists -- it's a space to talk and reflect on challenges together and find ways you can support, celebrate wins, discuss career growth and take time to listen and demonstrate curiosity and empathy.

This transforms weekly touch points from transactional encounters into relationship-building rituals that drive a positive microculture.

3. Walk the talk.


As leaders, the best direction you can give is to walk the talk. If you want teams to set healthy work/life boundaries, you should exhibit this behavior by not setting expectations that they work on the weekends or take phone calls in the evening unless there's an emergent issue. Make sure to take your vacation, tell your team you're taking it, and remind them to take theirs, too. As a leader, it's up to you to set the precedent.

4. Establish team values and communication norms together.

Everyone has different working and communication styles that can complement or conflict at times. It can be helpful to set time aside for the team to talk through a few agreed upon ways to collaborate, so everyone can help each other do their best work.

Every leader has influence on their team culture, which affects the broader culture. By empowering leaders and employees to define and build a microculture that creates an environment to do one's best work, you have already started down a positive road to building a healthy workplace ecosystem for all.

• Patricia Carl is founder and CEO of Highland Performance Solutions.

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