how to lead in a caustic culture

How to Lead in a Caustic Culture

To lead in a caustic culture, focus on your influence.

It’s a question we hear after every keynote we deliver: “I want to build a Courageous Culture, but I don’t know if it will work at my company. It’s not a healthy place and the people I report to aren’t interested in doing things well or better. How do I lead in such a caustic culture?”

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By the way – this question isn’t limited to frontline leaders or middle-level managers. We’ve also heard it from CEOs who feel that their Board of Directors insists on negative or ineffective strategies.

Reclaim Your Power

You can’t lead well when you feel like a victim. It saps your energy and your team will sense the lack of confidence. When you’re stuck wishing things we’re different, you can’t create positive change.

I’ve been there—and it stinks. Your leader is in a bad mood and starts giving you directives you know aren’t healthy. If you pass that negativity and anger to your team, you’ll crush motivation and innovation. But they’re the boss, right?

Not exactly.

To quickly shift out of feeling like a victim, you’ve got to reclaim your power. There are two quick ways to do this. First, remember that you are in full control of yourself. Your boss or Board don’t choose how you act, how you treat your people, or what kind of culture you create.

That choice belongs to you.

They can set the goals and they may define a frustrating process you must follow – but how you engage with the people around is always your choice. I think of it as if I’m a lightning rod. Take the harsh energy you receive and dissipate it into the ground. Pass on the goals, objectives, and healthy outcomes.

The second step to reclaim your power is to ask yourself this question:  “How can I?” eg:

How can I…

  • “treat my people with respect and dignity as we implement this?”
  • “call my team back to our values and help us to be our best selves?”
  • “advocate for better systems and solutions?”

These “How can I” questions help you reclaim your power because they focus on activities that you can do. Notice the question isn’t “How can I get my boss to change?” Instead, the focus is on you—what can you do right now?

If it feels overwhelming, find the smallest next step. Taking action, even a small action, to be the leader you want to be will help you reclaim your power and stop feeling like a victim.

Build a Cultural Oasis

Once you’ve reclaimed your power, it’s time to build something positive. When you lead in a caustic culture, one of the most important actions you can take is to build a cultural oasis.

In the desert, an oasis is a place of nourishment and peace. You can drink, rest, and resupply for your journey.

Think of your team or your circle of influence as that oasis in the desert of your overall culture. When people interact with you and your team, how can they come away refreshed? How will they experience respect, be seen, and treated with dignity?

Find the Others

Sometimes building a cultural oasis is not about overcoming a caustic culture, but finding ways to build and expand pockets of excellence. In a recent Leadership Without Losing Your Soul podcast episode, I interviewed Jamie Marsden. He wanted to enhance their high-performance results-focused culture and give leaders the tools they needed to also invest more deeply in human relationships.

Over time he and his team have built a voluntary grassroots community of practice filled with managers from across the company who are committed to healthy people management. When I asked him for his best piece of advice for a leader who has an idea like his and wants to create change, his advice simply:

“Find the others.”

I love that—as you build your cultural oasis, find the others. Who can you connect with who is committed to Winning Well and building a Courageous Culture? Share what you’re doing, support one another, and expand your oasis.

Find the others—inside your organization. In your community. Online and across the world. Many leaders around the world are committed to leading well. You’re not alone.

Your Turn: How to Lead in a Caustic Culture

I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment and share: When you’ve experienced a caustic culture, how did you lead well and build a cultural oasis for your people?

Posted in courageous cultures, Winning Well and tagged , , , , .

David Dye

Author and international keynote speaker David Dye gives leaders the roadmap they need to transform results without losing their soul (or mind) in the process. He gets it because he’s been there: a former executive and elected official, David has over two decades of experience leading teams and building organizations. He is President of Let's Grow Leaders and the award-winning author of several books: Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins Summer 2020), Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak. - a book for readers of all ages about courage, influence, and hope.


  1. I love this! This is exactly how I have stayed positive a number of times when I’ve been working in situations where there was negativity or difficult people to interact with and nothing was getting done. My favorite statement is “Own what you can own”. Take ownership for the part of a problem that you “own” but don’t react to everything else. Understanding that you set the culture and the tone in your area really helps to keep you focused on what you can control. Just because other departments don’t solve any problems doesn’t mean that you can’t. I also love the discussion of creating the “oasis”. Not allowing employees to sink into negativity but instead being the area that everyone comes to for a refreshing break is totally the answer. Pretty soon people are asking how you managed to create such a positive environment and enthusiasm and mood are contagious. It’s hard to be negative in a positive environment. Thanks for the upbeat message!

    • Thanks so much Kristine! I totally agree with the contagious part… I’m so glad to hear you role modeling “own what you can own.” Perfect. Thanks so much for expanding the conversation.

  2. Pingback: Leading in a Caustic Culture – Matthews' Blog

  3. Good Morning. I am wondering what I need to do to sign up for your November 6th show in Pittsburgh? Where its located? What’s the fee? Do I have to register? etc>

  4. Thanks for this piece of advice. Something that I needed right now due to the situation I am facing. I will take control and restore my oasis

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