Methods for Changing a Workplace Culture


When confronted with a culture problem inherent in your workplace, you have a few options about what to do. Each tactic has advantages and challenges. This article examines real-world business instances of what went wrong, what was done about it, and the ultimate reaction to the method of change applied.

We all are confronted with problems at work; however, some problems are embedded in the workplace. This isn’t about a single argument over a feature or bug that could be resolved in one conversation. Instead, this is about the culture having built-in assumptions and tribal thinking. When confronted with a culture problem, there are four major things you can do:

  • Leave. Run away. Find a new job. Quit. Become a consultant.
  • Attempt to change the system from within via persuasion, appeals to logic, and, frankly, a few less honorable methods. The goal here is to get promoted enough to be in charge, creating the change yourself.
  • Break the system using things like whistle-blowing or going to the owner or stockholders.
  • Shut down mentally and become a cog in the machine.

Each of these tactics has advantages and challenges. Within my personal community of fellow testers, we have experienced all four methods of changing an organization. These accounts are an attempt to capture the essence of what went wrong, what was done about it, and the ultimate reaction to the method of change applied.

Fighting for Change (Then Quitting)

As a tester, I tend to be a fighter. I try to change a corporation from the inside, and in this case, I worked for a small company on a business-to-business application. It had a new application that was a reimagining of an old product line. The new product was not developed at the speed desired, so the powers that be had more people hired. That didn't seem to get them the development speed increase they wanted, so they started forcing people to work more hours. It got as bad as ninety-hour workweeks, with people making more mistakes and quality going the wrong way. We couldn't deploy to production unless all bugs were fixed, and release dates couldn’t be pushed back. The powers that be made a culture that was almost designed to create buggy and wrong software. The culture they created didn't work.

I tried to show how this system was creating more bugs, the team was losing morale, and we were all tired. Even QA was missing more bugs because of the cultural issues. We had several bad deploys, but evidence didn't seem to matter. At one point, we had five active sprints running at once. Yelling was used to motivate the employees to test and develop faster. We had two sprints older than the production deploy still getting worked on, which made testing impossible. We didn't have enough environments for all those builds. It didn't matter.

Then people started leaving. We had about 50 percent turnover for two years. It still didn't matter. I tried talking to the more reasonable people who had influence. They all agreed the system was broken, but they were all very type B, laid-back people. “It's all good,” they'd say. Clearly the upper management had chosen them because of their point of view, and I was forced to conclude the culture was broken beyond my ability to change it. I looked for options but found none, so I did the only thing left to me: I looked for a new job.

Breaking the System: The Nuclear Option

We indirectly worked for a Fortune 500 company as a managed service. That means we were long-term temp workers who had managers who didn’t work directly for the Fortune 500 company. About two hundred of us did factory-school style testing of hardware for roughly minimum wage.

People were hired and let go all the time based on work needs. With so much flux, there was a constant sense of fear that you might lose your job. There were ever-present rumors that if you had a baby picture up or you were friends with upper management, you were safe from the layoffs. I have no evidence one way or another, but some rumors sounded very convincing.

I don’t know who did it, but with this environment of fear, someone wrote the legal department of the Fortune 500 company. The allegations were taken seriously and an investigation was undertaken. The next thing you know, all two hundred of us temp workers were getting interviewed. It did not go well for our management, and they were all let go. I never knew for sure who did it, but a recently promoted manager was blamed for the whistle-blowing. The other managers had all been friends, but once they were convinced she was the snitch, she couldn’t do anything to fix the relationship—even though she too was fired. Even outside of management, many people were rather bitter toward her. It made everyone paranoid for a while. Fortunately, I left that environment right afterward, but if I had stayed, I know I too would have been paranoid because it was no longer clear whom you could trust. I don’t imagine much good testing went on for months afterward.

Accepting the Culture

I recently talked with an ex-coworker I knew was passionate about test automation years ago and had a promising future. I told him I had been published and told him he should start writing too. His response shocked me: "The corporate veal pen in which I sit all day does not allow me to freely think. I am a 'yes-man' and have no opinions on any subject. I am a doer and not a thinker. I will leave the blogging to you, my friend!"

It was like someone had punched me in the gut. I told him he should fight those chains, go somewhere else, and just do something. I had been working on this article and I desperately wanted to help him change. We talked. At some point he told me he was "good with it." I noted we were looking for automation engineers. I chatted with my boss, and he said we'd interview him. My friend's analysis of his current employer was accurate in both our opinions, which showed he had some critical thinking skills. I asked about growth, and he felt he was growing, but there was a lack of purpose. As for an interview, he declined, saying, "I'm in a good place. I really am! I like not caring. I am absolutely healthy. I have no stress. People want my opinion on everything. I'll leave it up to the machine to decide whether to heed my advice or not. I clock in and out. Work is lame any way you split it. It is nice to finally be in a place where work and real life are separated."

In this attitude of acceptance, he felt change was unlikely, but if it were to occur, it would be from external influences. He didn't want to waste time and effort changing a system that didn't want change. Moving on seemed stressful. Breaking the system is either impossible or unpalatable. All that is left is to accept. This is his solution.

Wrapping It All Up

Different people feel different pieces of their lives are more important. Some people feel it is easier to accept how things are and enjoy life. Others desire change and will press for it. Working as a contractor doing testing for a few months and then moving on has advantages. Others still create change by fighting the system, even at the risk of breaking it. Each has risks and rewards. Apathy in an organization might make it easier to come into work every day, but it also means giving up hope of making a better world at work. It may also allow you to provide feedback from testing in a more dispassionate way. Attempting to break an organization like Edward Snowden might create change and discussions, but it also makes you an enemy of that organization. What you choose to do when you discover a cultural flaw is up to you.

What type of development culture do you want, and how you plan to get it?

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.