How Deep is the Wound?

Published: June 7, 2022

The most common reason our phone rings is a problem with workplace culture. Every organization wants to have a positive, family-like vibe that attracts the best talent and retains them when the poachers come hunting. No brainer, right? Regardless of industry, the sustained achievement of this ideal is rare. There are so many ways things can go south. Even though there is a recipe, human frailty finds a way to mess with the ingredients. Unfortunately, the deeper the roots of the dysfunction, the deeper the fix.

There are specific steps required to either establish a foundation of healthy workplace culture or repair a broken system. While the paths eventually have similar trajectories, getting to the starting line takes much longer for organizations that have sanctioned toxic, disrespectful, unsafe behavior. The reason is simple. These workplaces have normalized dysfunction.

Chronically unhealthy cultures, either by omission or commission, permit exchanges that undermine trust and, therefore, creativity. As a result, problem-solving is disabled since novel solutions get spanked if they do not adhere to the ‘way things are done around here.’ I once heard a veteran teacher in a public school setting say to a younger colleague, “You haven’t been around here long enough to have an idea.”


Unless an unhealthy workplace acknowledges they are sick and, as a full team, want to get better, they will be unable to execute the treatment plan outlined below. Instead, they will devote the entirety of their energy to keeping things the same. Not changing is always easier than changing.

Deeply wounded workplaces have an uphill battle with the wind in their faces. But if they decide enough is enough and are willing to expel the riffraff, here is the recipe that organizations with mere flesh wounds adopt to establish, maintain, and perpetuate healthy workplace cultures.

  1. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the culture. Is everyone aligned with the mission? Are employees accountable for follow-through? Are day-to-day interactions marked by respect and collaboration? Is there room for innovative ideas? Is the team resilient when faced with adversity?
  2. Determine how pervasive the strength or weakness is on the team. Does everyone feel the same way? Are we divided into factions? Are diverse opinions held by only a few outliers? Are the outlier perspectives worth a listen?
  3. Leverage team strengths. Give power and authority to those who ‘get it.’ Disempower those who perpetuate toxins.
  4. Mitigate vulnerabilities in triage order. Prioritize mission/value alignment, trust and connection, innovation, and resilience.
  5. Celebrate examples of the desired culture in action. Share stories and reward contributors. Allow the positive movement toward the desired state to be showcased while dimming anything that detracts from this momentum.

Healthy workplace cultures practice and repeat these steps perpetually. When something goes awry, it is usually just a scratch that needs some minor first aid. The prognosis is favorable. Broken systems need more intensive intervention. The prognosis is questionable. When that’s the prognosis, it’s time to bring in the experts.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.