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How You Can Actually Change Your Workplace’s Culture

How You Can Actually Change Your Workplace’s Culture

“I have an entire room at my house—a library, really,” he told us. “On one wall, I’ve got biographies. The whole wall from floor to ceiling, all biographies of important people. On two others, I’ve got business books: team management, leadership, achieving goals. And I’ve read every one.” He sat back in his conference room chair, which squeaked loudly under his weight. The reclining motion was meant to prove a point, I think. I know more than you, or something like that.

The man in that chair was my boss, though that relationship would last only a few months. I’d taken the job with the sincerest hope that I would be with the company for the long term, but after a couple of weeks, I knew it probably wasn’t a good fit for me and I began to look elsewhere.

For that season, though, he was my boss, and he never missed an opportunity to tell us peons how much he knew about leading other people. He was the kind of man you’d follow over a cliff. You’d die, but so would he, and that would at least end the constant stream of vague, fairly obvious leadership principles that fell from his mouth day after day.

The problem wasn’t his over-the-top love for John Maxwell books or his attempts to use the word synergy is as many conversations as possible. It was, instead, that he was a jerk. He was mean. He yelled. He treated his employees like they were stupid. People listened to him because his title put him in charge, not because he was a great manager. It’s been said a number of different ways, but it’s true: “You don’t quit your job; your quit your boss.”

I remember, at the time, well-meaning people told me that I needed to go in every day and work for the Lord. Forget my boss and just do my best work for Jesus. That’s what the apostle Paul told slaves in the ancient world: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23). I tried. I still hated the job, and I felt like a slave.

Paul’s counsel is, of course, good advice. It’s hard to argue with the Word of God. But Paul also told slaves, “If you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21). We don’t have to stay in a bad situation if we can leave. And that’s just what I did when freedom, in the form of a job offer, came calling a short time later.

I wish I could tell you that my career has been smooth sailing ever since. I would love to tell you that the boss I described was an anomaly. But that’s not true. Sometimes, the problem isn’t a particular person, but a toxic culture. No one can do their best work when they are made to live in fear of being fired on a whim. Other times, it’s office politics that allow the worst possible decisions to float to the top and frustrations to rise in their wake.

I’m the sort of person who’d rather have a difficult conversation to get to the root of a problem than merely deal with the symptoms and let the underlying issue fester. So these work issues got me wondering, with the myriad of leadership books, blogs and conferences—both Christian and secular—at our disposal, how could there still be so many bad places to work?

And then I realized something: It’s our fault.

The Case for a New Kind of Workplace

In the past, Christians have often been at the forefront of workplace change. From abolitionist societies to child labor laws to many aspects of the workers’ rights movement, the Church has been there, pushing for fairness and for a world that more closely resembles the coming kingdom of God. And maybe it’s time for a change once again.

I’m not suggesting that having a jerk for a boss is akin to being a slave or a child laborer, but I do believe that if we are going to make our offices, shops and factories the sorts of places we’d like to spend the better part of our waking lives, then change is just as likely to come from the Church as from anywhere else.

For starters, we can stop treating Paul’s words in Colossians 3:23 as if they’re the end of the matter. Of course, we are to work as if we’re working for the Lord. That’s true for slaves and CEOs, and whether our workplaces are toxic or life-giving. But when that becomes the final answer to a deep problem, we hurt ourselves, our coworkers, and those who will come after us when we inevitably burn out.

Yes, let’s work as if we’re working for Jesus directly. But I think Jesus would want us to be a force for good in a bad situation. Don’t you? That means getting back to what it means to live whole, balanced lives. That means loving our neighbors in the cubicle next to us and in the corner office. And it means calling out unfair policies and manipulative behavior that hurt people. Most of all, though, it means pressing for the Golden Rule in everything.

Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Think about what life at work would be like if we practiced this commandment and made it the first item in our corporate policy manuals. Somehow, in all those shelves of leadership books my former boss boasted, he had missed this. But if he had been the sort of man who treated others the way he wanted to be treated, I really would have followed him off that proverbial cliff.

I know. It seems too simple. But I can’t think of a workplace situation that wouldn’t be improved by applying this principle. Jesus has a way of cutting through the clutter and getting to the heart of the matter.

So how might we start a revolution that changes the way we work? I’d like to suggest we start with three things:

  • When we find ourselves in positions of power, overseeing other employees or dealing with clients, we must operate with the Golden Rule as our prime directive. 
  • When given an opportunity to speak into corporate policies or ask questions, we should advocate for the Golden Rule in every situation. It always works.
  • We must remember to apply the Golden Rule to our relationships, but especially our relationships with our supervisors. If nothing else, they’ll be more open to what we have to say if they know they have our support.

Imagine how our workplaces would be transformed if every follower of Christ began operating with the Golden Rule as their mission statement. Imagine the revolution that would ensue.

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