Culture Change and Its Quickly Changing Dynamics

Marc Plooster is an Accountant for the County of Ottawa, MI. Prior to joining Ottawa County, he worked for the City of Grand Rapids, MI in multiple roles including as a John H. Logie Fellow.

One of the most significant characteristics to consider when accepting or rejecting a job offer is the workplace culture. Unlike other characteristics, workplace culture can change quickly whenever there is a change in management personnel. What should one do when there are changes to leadership, and the culture of the department changes? What should one do when the changes begin within the first year on the job? My short answer is, I do not know.

When I accepted my current job, the department culture was very different than it is today. The manager I had when I started was a vocal proponent of giving staff flexibility in their work schedules, and she advocated strongly for such freedom. Because I was still taking the last of my master’s degree classes, this was exactly what I needed to be successful in university, particularly on days when I had scheduled class.

Five months after I started, the first manager I had took a position with a different governmental organization, and after a month search for her replacement, I have since had a different manager. In that time, flexible scheduling has been drastically reduced and eliminated for some employees including me. There has also been more oversight throughout the office. Thankfully I have completed my degree, so I can work a standard business day schedule, and I am not opposed to greater oversight as it encourages communication in the office.


Rather than asking the question of what to do about a change in culture, the question should be how we assess the likelihood and cope with changes to culture.
Personally, it is not the specific changes that have me apprehensive, it is the fact the changes being made are drastically altering the workplace culture. Since I began a year ago, almost a quarter of the employees I have worked with have either moved on, retired, or mutually parted ways. Turnover remains high and is one of management’s greatest concerns. In searching for answers, they never seem to consider the impact culture changes have as a contributing factor.

Workplace culture is highly dependent upon who is in charge and how they see the office operating. It is natural for employees to take ownership of their position by making procedural changes. There is no exception to this rule for middle and upper management. As a lowly analyst, I took the approach to first replicate and understand the previous employee procedures to appreciate how they completed their tasks. Concurrently, I identified areas of improvement, and as I felt comfortable, I began making changes. It was as I began to make changes to the processes that I took ownership of my tasks. This method will not work for everyone, but so far, it has been successful for me. More seasoned employees may be more willing to jump into a new organization and make immediate changes, which seems to be the approach my new manager is taking.

Because those who a manager would oversee are typically not involved in the process of selecting a manager, I would caution remaining management and the new manager from making drastic changes upon arrival. While I would hope remaining management would evaluate how prospects subordinates personalities might interact, it is sometimes hard to assess future relationships when every interviewer puts their best face forward.  Likewise, when personality tests are compared, some aspects of how individuals work together are not captured. Proceeding with caution is often a safe bet.

Rather than asking the question of what to do about a change in culture, the question should be how we assess the likelihood and cope with changes in culture. Prospective employees should subtly ask questions about turnover such as, “is the office fully staffed?” Often you will get an answer beyond yes or no, and you can assess turnover by the narrative. One in the job, if we cannot rely on personality assessments and the assessment of a few managers on how well staff will get along, I encourage the department to put a freeze on major office policy changes. Once involved parties can get to know one another without major department projects obstructing the assessment of each other’s personalities, management can consider making policy changes. Just as I took the approach to see how things worked before making changes, it is important to see how individuals interact and complete tasks under existing structures before making changes. Most importantly, when making changes, it is crucial to fully and faithfully discuss the changes allowing everyone to express their opinion.


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