I was recently with a group of managers who were discussing how difficult it was to be a good leader when the organisation’s culture was one of blame and fear, and many of their bosses didn’t support them in what they were trying to do with their teams.  I know from my previous experiences how difficult it can be to maintain your integrity and style when your peers and senior executives have a different approach.

But it is possible to be a good leader, implement new behaviours and achieve great results, even in a culture that doesn’t value and support great leadership.  And these are all down to you, no costs involved, and your drive for self-awareness and your own career development.

  • Develop self-awareness: understand your attitudes and behaviours, and how to build trust with your team.
  • Leadership skills: despite the culture, you can always ensure that you listen, communicate, give appropriate feedback and appreciation, celebrate success, help everyone learn from mistakes, show respect, have manners.
  • Leadership Values: decide on what your non-negotiable leadership rules and values are and maintain them even when under pressure.  What is the line you will not cross?
  • Ethical behaviour: very important to question an organisation’s ethics and culture, and (a great point to consider) to ask whether you would be happy if your conduct or those of your team was reported on the front page of the news!
  • Performance:  you can decide on where your level of performance should be set, even if the organisation’s bar is lower.  And you can help develop others in your team to set theirs high too.
  • Manage upwards:  develop a productive and open communication with your manager and senior executives to help them understand your principles, values and leadership style better.
  • Encourage openness: develop an environment where people are open with feedback, issues and mistakes.
  • Be a role model: if you are standing up for your principles, developing others and encouraging mutual respect, it will get noticed and will lead the way for new and aspiring managers.
  • Protect others:  even if, like me, your bosses don’t understand your leadership style and think you’re being too protective, it’s important to stand up for your team/peers and have their backs, especially when the culture is negative.
  • Keep positive:  it may be difficult (even seeming impossible at times), but moaning, criticism and negativity will only fuel a bad culture, and will drain your energy.
  • Confidence: in order to maintain your integrity in a negative culture, it’s essential that you build and maintain your self-confidence in your abilities.  Keep developing your leadership skills and self-awareness, and invest in your future.

It may be difficult to ensure you maintain good leadership skills in an environment that is lacking in encouragement and understanding, but it certainly can be done.  Not only will your team and your organisation benefit, but it will help your future success as a leader.

I was recently invited to a great roundtable discussion of finance industry professionals about preventing risk, and one of the findings was that we needed to help leaders who want to make a difference, despite any negative culture, to have the courage to do so.

What other ways have you found to improve your leadership skills in a difficult culture?

Contact us for executive coaching to develop leadership skills and self-awareness, or download our Ethics & Behavioural Risk coaching brochure.



  1. admin

    Thanks to Brett Sentance on Linked In:
    I have experienced 2 very difficult cultures in as many years, and it can be quite difficult to maintain integrity and your leaderships skills at the same time, without becoming part of the culture itself. I have learnt so much in the past 3 years, and am looking to learn more where possible. I am relatively new to this, and am planning on posting more in the future.
    I have made some classic errors here, not staying 100% positive and becoming part of the sub culture within the organisation. I need to improve in this area, if I am going to continue in my role. I am acutely aware of organisational cultures, and this is an area I am very interested in. Anyone else experienced similar challenges?

  2. I think there is something important in this list of positives that needs to be addressed. Surviving a difficult work culture involves looking for allies and building strategic bridges with them. It also involves finding ways to instigate a change, with a network of supporters – a good book on this is “The No-Asshole Rule” which talks about changing a bullying and blaming culture in the workplace. People continue to bully and blame because no one stands up to them, they then surround themselves with others like them and dissent can be easily quashed when it is just one person. Successfully transforming the culture is an effort that requires creating and nurturing a group that begins to act “for the good” rather than whining to a group of the discontented. Finally, if your work culture is so toxic that you have no allies and no openings to instigate a strategic change for the better, quit. When enough people refuse to stay in horrible job situations, the company either has to face the music or fold. But that isn’t your problem. If the ship is sinking, get onto a lifeboat, there is no honour to going down with a rotten ship.

  3. admin

    Thanks to Jackie Carpenter on Linked In:
    Oh yes…in more than one organisation, and in more than one sector, statutory and voluntary. Some of the hardest parts of leadership are the tension between the need to keep a happy and well-functioning team operating the front-line service, and the behind-the-scenes movements and trends, both within the organisational and in the wider environment. It is a skill to hone, to know how much to share, when, and how. And having different (often clashing) cultures at different levels within the organisation – or being in an organisation with different values to your own – compounds the problems. I found the article a really helpful checklist.

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