Blog Post

Every Employee Can Take Part in Improving an Organization’s Workplace Culture—Here’s How 

By Mollie Teitelbaum
July 18, 2022

When it comes to positive culture change within the workplace environment, there is so much that individual employees often cannot control. For example, growing a company’s ERGs and improving leadership representation are two crucial DEI goals that are challenging to pursue as an individual employee. So much of workplace culture transformation depends on stakeholder buy-in, organizational investment, and perhaps most notably: time.   

Those workplace attributes that can only be impacted potentially, by multiple employees, over time, tend to feel outside of the individual employee’s control. Though crucial to holistic progress, the dimensions of culture change that require a substantial investment of time and collaboration can contribute to employees feeling powerless to improve company culture in the present.  

What Can We Control as Individuals?  

In this article, we consider one element of DEI work that we as individuals can control: the way we act toward our colleagues in any given moment. Are we distracted or attentive? Generous or dismissive? Affirming or intimidating? After describing the relationship between individual behaviors and workplace culture, we offer tips and priorities that anyone can embrace to contribute to a more positive workplace environment. 

‘The Looking Glass Self’ 

The idea that we use other people’s expressions—like smiles or eye rolls, or behaviors like acknowledging us, reactions like listening or insulting—to define ourselves has been referred to as ‘The Looking Glass Self.’ As leaders and as colleagues, we have the power to influence how others feel, through gestures both big and small.  

“Civility lifts people up whereas incivility pulls them down; it can make them feel small,” according to Behavioral Scientist, Christine Porath, Ph.D. Our behaviors can have a significant impact on other people’s experience, regardless of whether we are aware of that impact in the moment. To support individuals in gaining greater self-awareness of potentially harmful inadvertent behaviors, Dr. Porath also designed a Personal Workplace Civility Assessment, an excellent tool to support self-evaluation through the lens of “The Looking Glass Self.” 

Intentional Inclusive Behaviors  

Do we exhibit generosity of spirit—enthusiastically giving others our time and attention, especially when we are asked for advice or support? Or are we so consumed in our own work and problems that we give others the impression that our time is too valuable and off limits? 

The DEI imperative to have a positive impact on our colleagues’ workplace experience is well encapsulated by the phrase: “Be a Fountain, Not a Drain.” An employee who is a fountain fills people up with inspiration, energy, confidence, and motivation. Conversely, an employee who is a drain leaves colleagues feeling anxious, tired, or insecure. There are many behaviors employees can practice to act as a fountain. Consider a few:  

These are the kinds of behaviors that are characteristic of those employees (and they can have any title or position) who contribute to a more positive and inclusive workplace culture.  

“Be a Fountain Not a Drain,” But Make it DEI 

Applying a DEI lens to this approach requires additional consideration. What if you cannot reasonably be expected to be a fountain? In our current context of global unrest – with the COVID-19 pandemic, a state of mental health crisis, and high levels of political divisiveness, the pressures of the outside world often compound workplace stress

The idea of being a flowing source of support, generosity, compassion, and attention on top of the standard demands of a job can seem exhausting and unrealistic. To this very valid concern, particularly apt for equity-deserving groups, we say this: if you can’t be a fountain, at least don’t be a drain. In other words, one goal we can all aspire towards is to never be the employee who drains colleagues’ morale and in turn, their overall motivation to get their jobs done.  

On the days and in the moments when we cannot push our company’s culture to be more positive, nurturing, or communal—we can simply make sure not to deplete those around us. The more team members who achieve this goal, the fewer sources of office toxicity. We can positively impact workplace culture while addressing our personal needs and excelling in our job functions. In the words of Elaine Hall, “Inclusion elevates all.” 

This article features strategies and insights for culture change drawn from the popular Seramount DEI workshop, “Building Psychological Safety in the Workplace.” To learn more about Seramount’s powerful DEI solutions, contact us 

About the Author

Mollie Headshot
Mollie Teitelbaum
Associate Director, Learning