Expert Antidote to Repair a Toxic Culture
5 October, 2021
One of the unfortunate realities is that toxic culture can get out of control and can be unfixable from within. Working with someone as their mentor and knowing that they are going through a toxic work culture can be disheartening. I was a mentor to someone, and although she had a good manager, the company itself was downplaying her contributions, and the manager never really voiced out on her behalf. She was a fresh grad and her perception of the working world was very different. Being in a startup environment, not a lot of people were helping her with the onboarding process, but there was a lot to deliver. On top of that, she fell into the trap of competing with people who had 3 - 5 years of industry experience. Since we did not work in the same organization and connected through another platform, it wasn't easy to understand what exactly she was going through at their workplace.
My initial calls with her were solely based on listening to all kinds of problems she was facing at the workplace. I needed a full context as to the team dynamics and why she was being faced with the issues. I took a lot of notes. It was unusual because normally, in a mentoring conversation, the mentee takes ample notes that help them refer back to it in need. In this case, I wanted to keep up with everything that she told me.
During my off-time, I read through the notes to pick the pieces and tried to find patterns of the real problem. Essentially, it boiled down to:
- Her struggles in transitioning from being a fresh grad to entering professional life.
- She did not have the right mentor, or coach, to guide her through the way.
While in college, her classes would be all over the place; students walking 15 minutes late for lessons are considered fine, some students attending online classes are also okay, and there is a lot of freedom. Walking to professional life, she would start working late at 11 in the morning and stay at work until 8 in the evening. Even though she was not cutting back on work hours, she was working on her own hours, which came to notice of her co-workers. Getting the work done on time was not enough because there was hardly much overlap of working hours among her and her co-workers.
It resulted in her not asking questions or scheduling meetings with other people in the team, which was impacting her performance. To her, it was strange for others to leave work at 6:30, while she kept working till 8 pm. My first advice was for her to get expectations aligned with her manager around core hours and feedback on how she was currently showing up.
In the end, she was able to write accurate, clean code leading to very few bugs in the system. By doing so, she was able to gain more credibility as she was delivering high-quality work and not causing bugs that would require other people to jump in and fix. People around them also realized that she was investing in herself through the courses, which enabled her team members to lean in on them. After all, her manager was genuinely interested in going forward and changed her relationship with the team.
The team system was set up incorrectly, whereby juniors were competing with the seniors, and finally, the seniors took the credit and a chunk of the bonus. This was a little tricky as she had to have a transparent conversation with her manager regarding this. She was afraid to have such candid conversations, so we did a role play. I became her manager and asked her to speak to me about the problems first that would get them out of their comfort zone. Initially, it was pretty funny, and she did not take it as seriously, but after a couple of calls, I could truly start to help.
Initially, conversations tended to get very personal or opinionated. I took her through the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) model to learn more about how to provide effective feedback. After 3 - 4 weeks of practice, she was able to take it to her manager. Her manager was super impressed with how a junior engineer had given clear feedback, which led the manager to focus on the problem areas within the organization. The most significant outcome was that I believe that I set the person up for professional success for life.
- When you are mentoring someone, listen well, and pay close attention to details. Even the slightest amount of detail can go a long way.
- Educate your mentees on how to provide effective feedback. Most of the time, the mentees or juniors in their role are skeptical of giving feedback. Push them out of their comfort zone, let them focus on data points while not letting their opinions get in the way.
- Help them with maintaining professional boundaries. Again, juniors who are fresh grads often forget where to draw the line. A little guidance towards the right direction can help.
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