Psychology and Workplace Culture

group hand fist bump
Photo by on

In my most recent blog, I covered off on the psychological history or journey of an individual and how that journey impacts on them and how they enter the workforce. In this blog I want to focus on how the workplace culture developes and why key leadership skills at the top is so important to make sure the culture is a positive one.

A common definition of workplace culture is, “How things are done around here.” Having worked in a number of organisations as an employee and as a consultant, I have seen an array of good and bad ones, but none are alike, because each person in the workplace contributes in some way so they are essentially never likely to be identical, even though there may be some similarities. Naturally those in higher roles should and most often do, have a large impact on the type of culture that the workplace is going to have. I say workplace rather than organisation, because those larger organisations with multiple sites or workplaces will have different individual cultures within each workplace.

When I worked in the police force my role was to help with rehabilitation and injury management of officers and doing this I got to interact with a number of officers who had psychological issues, not from seeing horrible things as an officer, but because of how they were treated by their manager or other officers they worked with. When I would investigate I would find certain police stations had lots of cultural issues while others didn’t and in large ways the heads of those stations definitely either set the tone for the culture through deliberate management practices or through allowing poor behaviour to go unchecked.

Some of what I saw was managers who had a very aggressive management style, the classic, “my way or the highway” mentality. They would rant and rave and make up their own “rules” for the station, sometimes trivial things to make sure everyone knew who was the boss. The result? A station that hated when he was in and where the officers would talk about him behind his back. It was also a station with high turnover, officers would come and do their mandatory 2 years and they couldn’t wait to skip out of there. I actually did exactly that when I was an officer.

The troops themselves were great to work with but he always left a dark cloud over the station that affected the mood and had an effect on the culture which would have been a lot better if just that one person had left. In other stations you had Senior Sergeants who had a similar style to the one above, but they also had their favourites and this created even more issues because some of them would get greater opportunities for advancement even if they weren’t the most capable ones. This created a polarisation within the station as the favourites tended to have similar “aggressive undertones” and tended to pick on those who weren’t in the clique.

Once again the Fight or Flight reflex has a significant effect on us as individuals and this ultimately impacts the team culture. Fight or Flight or more appropriately Anger and Fear dominates in these cultures. Those in power use aggression (physical or psychological) to get their employees to do what they need done. This creates fear from those employees and they either comply or get punished. If you have long-term employees working in fear, you ultimately get compliance only and no discretionary effort. The morale is often poor and turnover can be high.

The importance of the leaders creating an environment where there is less aggression and greater psychological safety is paramount. It really is the difference between a mentality of playing NOT to lose and playing to WIN. How this plays out is like a sports analogy where you have a person or team that is dominating play and suddenly something happens and momentum swing a little and suddenly the other team comes back at them and you can see them unravel and this because “fear” comes into the equation and now instead of playing to win like they were earlier, they are playing not to lose and that mindset just doesn’t produce the best results in sport and in the workplace.

As leaders in organisation we need to help create that safety for our teams to feel comfortable to give good honest feedback when we calibrate the type of behaviour we are willing to accept and what we will not accept. Lots of organisations have come up with Core Values, Missions and Purposes, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing if the leaders in the organisation just give it lip service and actually do it to get greater output from their employees.


business money innovation icon
Photo by Pixabay on



Too often I have seen organisations do this and behind closed doors that is exactly their real purpose, which is to sell more and make more money. They expect their employees to follow the core values, but their own behaviour doesn’t fit in with that and they still rule with that fear undercurrent, so nothing changes, because the employees still feel unsafe and they act accordingly by continuing to do just enough to not get into trouble, they don’t want to stand out, they just plod along. They bring unions in to stand up for them, because they don’t want to be targeted individually.

The first steps to creating safety is about genuinely focusing on how we can grow our people and develop good genuine relationships. As leaders the first question we need to ask ourselves is what are we doing that makes our employees feel unsafe? How do we deal with people who underperform? Do we use fear to intimidate our employees to do what is required? Sometimes we do this accidentally with our rules or policies and we as managers can hide behind these to make our decisions.

In a number of manufacturing roles I would see that management have the view that they just want their employees to comply with a process and not deviate from that. Some even call it idiot proofing the process so anyone can do it. They are saying they don’t want an employee who thinks, they want compliance and amazingly that is what they get. They don’t get innovation or ideas from their employees and then they wonder why nothing gets better. Understanding the psychology of fear and anger is an important key for any leader, because it leads to a lot of areas of their team culture and the individuals at home.

Clint Adams is a former Police Officer who has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, Post Graduate Qualifications in Rehabilitation Counselling and Business Management. He has a Blog and Podcasts on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
Below are instalments in the Full mental Jacket Series:
Instalment 1: Understanding Fear & Anger
Instalment 2: The Brain & Counselling
Instalment 3: Creating Resilience
Instalment 4: The Inner Story
Instalment 5: Creating Safety
Instalment 6: You Are The Director
Instalment 7: Directing Your Children
Instalment 8: Shame & Guilt
Instalment 9: Breaking the pattern
Instalment 10: Taking Control
Full Free E-Book

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s