Subtle behaviours in the workplace can significantly impact the culture in a team or organisation. In fact, many managers recognise that culture is the outcome of lots of little decisions made over time. So, it should come as no surprise that small, negative behaviours that are left unchecked could potentially undermine it. Micro-actions can have big consequences, and employers need to know how to implement practical strategies to address them early.

Divisive language

Collaboration and team work are amongst the most important ingredients for building a healthy culture at work. However, when team members use divisive rather than inclusive language, it may be an indication that there are silos developing between people and/or deparments.

When employees make subtle comments such as ‘That’s their project’ rather than ‘That’s our project,’ or changes from leadership are communicated amongst employees as ‘They told us we have to’ instead of ‘We agreed this was the best way forward,’ it will not be long before disconnected teams emerge.

Managers should look at emphasising the use of ‘us’ and ‘we’ instead ‘they’ and ‘them’ language when discussing work, challenges, or desired outcomes.

Bad ideas

The strength in a team is in its differing views, ideas, and opinions. The opportunity to freely share ideas that could be considered good or bad by the group is an important part of fostering a creative and innovative culture. Feeling comfortable to share ideas in team discussions are indicators that employees feel safe to challenge the norms without fear.

The absence of these ideas in team meetings can be in indicator that the team is drifting towards conformity, or lacks the psychological safety necessary for employees to contribute to the discussion or challenge a viewpoint.

Managers can introduce the practice of encouraging team members to add to new ideas shared during group discussions, rather than immediately dismissing them.

Score keeping

When employees feel the need to gather evidence or keep score against other team members, this can indicate that trust is fractured and that the focus in the workplace is more on defence rather than support. In these low-trust environments, employees are less likely to assume positive intent from the actions of team members, and any misstep can quickly become weaponised.

A lack of trust can have a hugely negative impact on the culture in a workplace, and managers can mitigate this by modelling and promoting timely feedback through ongoing conversations rather than waiting for formal reviews. Encouraging employees to participate in regular and open-ended feedback when needed helps prevent the accumulation of grievances for later.

Closed cliques

Whether by personality or proximity, it is inevitable that certain relationships in the workplace will be stronger than others. In fact, trusting relationships at work are important for building a healthy culture. However, as these relationships form and develop, they run the risk of becoming closed and can become shut off from outsiders, external input, or challenge. This can lead to potential alienation of other team members, lack of collaboration and even favouritism.

Managers can look for opportunities to introduce ‘outsiders’ into established groups when delegating work, whether in cross-departmental projects or one-to-one peer mentoring. A practical way to encourage this is when a challenge arises, invite team members to write a list of the top five people they would typically go to for an answer, and then intentionally seek other people who are not on that list to encourage outside assistance.

Subtle unproductive workplace behaviours can be a signal of much deeper cultural issues. By paying close attention to these micro-signals, employers can address these issues before they escalate, fostering an environment for their team to truly thrive.

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