Transforming Workplace Culture

"Culture" maybe hard to define, but the signs of a dysfunctional workplace culture are hard to ignore. Do any of these sound like your co-op?

  • The rumor mill, fueled by gossip and backbiting, runs overtime but no one brings issues directly to management.
  • Board and staff focus inward on workplace issues while customers and the larger market are neglected.
  • Staff show intolerance toward coworkers and customers who don't "fit in."
  • When staff don't like a management decision, they do an end run around management and get the board involved in the operations.
  • Staff feel a sense of entitlement to time off and don't cooperate with each other to cover the schedule.
  • Blaming is more prevalent than problem solving.
  • Process is more important than outcome.

The impact of a sour workplace culture can go beyond mere unpleasantness to high turnover (especially in hard to fill management positions), low productivity or lost sales. Even when a co-op is doing well financially, the stress caused by such negativity can keep the co-op from achieving its full potential.

Experts in organizational development say that transforming a group's culture requires a broad approach, addressing as many as possible of these elements: mission and vision, goals and measures, policies and procedures, customs and norms, organizational structure, training, performance evaluations, reward systems, communications and ceremonies. Focusing on one element alone will not bring about fundamental change. For example, a mission statement to increase staff diversity changes nothing unless it is reinforced with measurable goals, policies, communications, training and rewards. And changing the basis of raises from seniority to individual performance won't successfully improve productivity without clarification of expectations, restructuring of the evaluation system, and training for supervisors.

Before attempting to alter workplace culture, the first step for co-op leaders is to assess the current situation to identify just what is "broken." This assessment then serves as a benchmark for measuring the success of the co-op's change effort. If properly conducted, an employee survey will yield a statistical measure of employee morale, especially if backed up with confidential interviews to help interpret the survey scores. Also look at measurable factors such as staff turnover, workers' comp claims, absenteeism, meeting attendance, productivity ratios (storewide and by department), and average wage. Compare these figures to those of other co-ops. In addition, review notes from exit interviews to get a picture of why employees leave.

Armed with this information, management can then involve board and staff in some structured discussion to identify what is particularly counter-productive and discouraging about the co-op's workplace culture and what a more satisfying environment would look like. If some departments seem to function with higher productivity and morale than the rest of the store, what is the secret of their success, and can it be adapted to other areas?

To take the lead in addressing each of the elements of workplace culture the general manager could appoint and work closely with a task force of management and non-management staff. For additional staff involvement, you could use focus groups of randomly selected staff in larger co-ops or regular staff meetings in smaller stores. The board of directors' role in the change effort would be confined mainly to the first two elements (mission and vision, goals and measures), but the board should receive regular progress reports from management.

Mission and vision

To get where you want to go, you need to know what it will look like when you get there. Many co-ops have values statements accompanying their mission statements, which often mention the kind of workplace the co-op intends to provide its employees. Rarely do these statements mention what the co-op expects back from employees. Policy handbooks may lay out expectations such as direct communications about problems, putting customers first, cooperating with coworkers, but unfortunately such handbooks are rarely living, breathing documents used by management and staff for guidance. A mission statement for the workplace, first discussed by board and staff, then drafted by management and adopted by the board, could both outline the vision of what you are working toward and launch the campaign to transform workplace culture.

Goals and measures

How will you know if you have realized your vision? The goals you set depend on the problems you are addressing. For example, a co-op with a high percentage of part-time staff, working few hours per week, poorly paid with no benefits, feeling uninformed and alienated, and turning over frequently, would measure success in transforming the culture by arriving at a smaller number of employees working the same FTE's (full-time equivalents), cross-trained and covering absences for each other, earning a higher average wage and achieving higher sales per labor hour, with lower turnover. Along with such measures of progress, conduct another employee survey 18 to 24 months after the first, using the same questions and methodology.

Policies and procedures

To achieve the goals, you need policies that provide guidance to supervisors and staff in day-to-day decisions. Maybe this is a good time to overhaul your policy handbook. Pay close attention to personnel policies covering time off, benefits, evaluations, pay increases, disciplinary action and grievances, and store policies covering customer service, safety and security, with an eye toward how these policies reinforce the vision for a transformed culture.

Customs and norms

Many organizations have workplace norms that are nowhere written as policy yet hold force in practice. These need to be explicitly addressed to be sure they aren't working against the culture you want. For instance, do senior staff "earn" the right to not work on weekends? Are better performers rewarded with their preferred hours in scheduling? Is it OK to wear T-shirts and buttons with slogans promoting some causes but not others? Is poor performance tolerated for old-timers but not for newer staff? Are managers scheduled to work 40 hours but expected to work 50?

Organizational structure

The roles of board and management, the lines of accountability, the authority to make different types of decisions - all these might need clarification. Who serves on the management team and what is that group's purpose? Should buying be more centralized to put more staff out of the back room and onto the floor? Should there be assistant managers in some departments? Or should departments be run by self-directed work teams? Should there be a manager on duty at all times? Should grievances be handled by a committee of peers rather than a committee of the board?


If people have new roles and new expectations, they will need new skills. Do managers need training in teambuilding, coaching, conducting performance evaluations and pay reviews? Are some jobs the "ladders" to others, and if so, can people get training to be eligible for desired jobs? Do work teams need help with group problem-solving and conflict resolution? Cross-training can be a major driver in changing workplace culture, fostering both a sense of personal responsibility for the co-op overall and support for coworkers, having "walked a mile in their moccasins."

Performance evaluations

If an expectation is really important, it should be brought up in the performance review and compared to some observable, if not measurable, standard. Evaluations are one of management's potentially most effective tools to give feedback and set goals for improvement in order to help people align their performance with the vision for a new, healthy workplace culture. For example, evaluations can assess directness ofcommunication, using established channels to solve problems, or flexibility in helping out co-workers, not to mention the many facets of customer service.

Reward system

This is the most powerful element involved in transforming culture, because people will continue to do what they get positive reinforcement for doing. Not all rewards are monetary, but the co-op's pay structure sends a strong message. Are pay increases based on individual performance? seniority? cost of living? the co-op's financial status? Does increased pay go hand-in-hand with increased responsibility? Is a bonus at the end of the calendar year seen as a "holiday bonus," given out of the employer's largesse? or is it seen as profit-sharing earned by the staff's hard work? Who gets promoted to department manager positions? Do you look beyond buying expertise to the qualifications that will help build the workplace culture you want? Training itself can be an effective reward. Giving people information in areas of specialization (e.g., seminars on nutrition, visits to other stores, consulting help) can be empowering and can build loyalty to the co-op.


To implement cultural change, you may need to increase and vary the channels of communication, both to reinforce the vision and to get feedback on progress. Studies show that employees' preferred method of communication is individual, face-to-face meetings with their supervisor, particularly for important or sensitive subjects. Staff meetings could be enlivened by designating a task force to design and lead meetings around themes ofgreatest interest to staff. A staffnewsletter using humor and graphics can get attention. At Outpost Natural Foods Co-op, the general manager has lunch every month with a randomly chosen small group of employees to hear their concerns. Keep in mind that at times of upheaval, such as an expansion or change of management, it is better to err on the side of too much communication rather than too little.


The occasions the co-op celebrates say a lot about its organizational values. Do you make a big deal about new people passing their trial period or staff getting promoted? or do you only have parties for departing employees? When departments meet goals or make dramatic improvements, does the rest of the staff hear about it? Are employees expected to attend membership events? These could be great occasions to spotlight staff achievements and hand out awards. Companies with profit-sharing and gainsharing programs find that these rewards become more meaningful when checks are handed out individually, accompanied by thanks and a handshake, rather than simply picked up in a pay envelope.

Woven together, all of the above elements make up organizational culture. By addressing as many as possible, co-op leaders can make a difference by transforming workplace cultures into happy, healthy, productive places to work.

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