LEADERSHIP: Want to Change a Culture? Ride a Road Grader

Get out into your community, get dirty, and get to know employees in their space.

Nov 6, 2019 | ARTICLE

Improving morale might not be quite as easy as jumping on a road grader, but for me it was the right start.

A few weeks into serving as the Pueblo West Metropolitan District Manager, one thing became very clear: Morale across the organization was low. Knowing our board had lofty and exciting goals, I knew we would go nowhere fast if we didn’t work hard at addressing morale first. We’ve made a lot of progress and here’s how we did it.

Evaluate the Organizational Culture

It’s tempting to jump in and try to “fix” the organizational culture problem you’re facing. Telling people straight away (especially as a newbie) that you appreciate them, or that you embrace innovation and encourage employees to identify new or improved ways of doing work are valiant efforts. However, until you truly know why things are the way they are, these words might not do much good, and even worse, could feel like a false, halfhearted attempt at improving things. So do a bit more digging, literally… get dirty!

Get Involved

I’ve spent hours with line-level employees mowing parks, boring a water line, driving a road grader, sealing cracks in roads, and operating a vac truck. Why? I learned more about what my employees do, but more importantly, I heard directly from them about their concerns, fears, constraints, and their personal goals and aspirations. I discovered the many reasons our morale was low. Some advice: Don’t make false promises. Employees will have concerns that may not be easily addressed. For example, I’ve heard about compensation repeatedly on my trips. I’m careful to never make promises, but to always say that I understand and that it's a priority for the next budget cycle (which is all 100-percent true).

These hours with employees have taught me more about our culture than a survey ever could. An unanticipated outcome? These employees tell me, their managers, and their directors how much they appreciate me taking the time to do this. It has built trust—the foundation for any good relationship.

Toe the Line

Be ready to hold people accountable. Here’s where it gets interesting. Six months into the job, HR and I started receiving complaints and concerns from employees. My HR manager said, “I’m worried we’re going backwards on morale—we’re getting all these complaints.” I said, “I think we’re moving forward as an organization because people are reporting issues that have been going on for years. They trust us now to do something about it.”

When employees report things that have been happening for years and they go to you or HR, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to act. These become the crucial moments. You are trusted, and now you must address the issues. I’m not sure our organization has ever completed so many disciplinary letters than it has in the last three months, but if something negative and destructive is happening in your organization, you need to hold people accountable, even if it’s tough and uncomfortable. To quote Gruenert and Whitaker, “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”

I had an employee tell me that the behavior of one of his employees was “never going to change, it just wasn’t possible.” And my response was, “We will do our best to coach, train, and provide feedback to this individual, but if the behavior does not improve over time, this person may not be the right fit for our organization.”

If you are trying to move the needle on changing your organization’s culture, whether you are the leader of the organization or not, you can do it. Literally get dirty, get to know the employees in their space, and hold people accountable. And don’t forget to have some fun along the way!


NINA VETTER is district manager/chief administrative officer, Pueblo West Metropolitan District, Pueblo West, Colorado (nvetter@pwmd-co.us).


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