First, a bit of background…

Culture Assassins was born over a coffee at Starbucks in the winter of 2018. My co-creator, Tim, and I had recently left senior leadership positions in the corporate world. Between us we had 40+ years of working experience across a variety of industries and companies. We had seen our fair share of workplace culture heroes and villains. As we sat and sipped our Caffè Americanos we talked about how often a single individual could make or break a culture. We all know the stories of Fortune 500 company CEOs being hired to fix an unhealthy culture or fired when they threatened a healthy one.

Tim and I knew, however, that there were hundreds of similar stories going on every day that never made the news. From this fateful conversation came the idea to share with others everything we had learned and experienced about how an individual can impact workplace culture.

But what were we going to call these builders and destroyers of workplace culture? “Culture Killers” sounded too murderous and criminal. “Culture Heroes” was a little too goody-two-shoes and didn’t cover people who intentionally or unintentionally destroyed a healthy culture. Finally, we landed on “Culture Assassins”. It implied more precision and intent on behalf of the individual. It was edgy and attention-grabbing. And I was a big fan of ninja movies when I was a kid. I would watch, completely captivated, as the good ninja battled against the bad.

Intention vs. execution

When we talk about good vs. bad culture assassins, the difference typically comes down to one of intention vs. execution. To help with this distinction we’ve stolen a bit of terminology from the hacker world (which stole it from old cowboy movies). A “white hat” assassin is a positive force moving the organization toward a healthy culture. A “black hat” assassin is a negative force moving the organization toward an unhealthy culture. A white hat usually acts with positive intent and has the necessary skills and experience to properly execute their intention. A black hat typically acts with positive intent but lacks the knowledge to execute effective change, OR they simply damage or destroy the culture unintentionally.

In my experience most people have good intentions and truly bad people are extremely rare. I’ve never actually encountered an individual who was maliciously trying to destroy a healthy culture. But I have encountered those folks – those black hats – who negatively impact a workplace culture through ignorance or a simple lack of experience and knowledge around how to do it properly.

In our experience, people who are really good at single-handedly impacting a workplace culture typically have the following four qualities or characteristics:

#1: You are trusted by the people in the culture you impact.

This is perhaps the most fundamental requirement to effect any sort of organizational or cultural change. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of the company or how good your intentions are. If you don’t have the trust of the people you work with it’s going to be very hard to make changes that last. Building trust is an art, not a science. Typically, however, it’s built on the willingness and ability of individuals within a group to be open, honest, and vulnerable. As a culture assassin you need to model these behaviours to earn the trust of those who will be impacted by the changes you want to make.

Some people believe it takes a long time to build trust, but I’ve experienced situations where a high level of trust was built between strangers within hours. Every situation will be different, and the time and elements that are required to build trust will vary.

An important thing to consider is whether your efforts to build trust are actually being successful. There are many articles and books out there on how to know if people trust you, including this good one from Much of it boils down to how often and willing people are to approach you, openly challenge your ideas, engage in productive debate, and be open and vulnerable with you about their feelings. High trust is also shown by how people react and support you when you need to override their input to make a tough decision and “lay down the law”.

#2: You understand the building blocks of workplace culture.

Having people’s trust will help them buy in to the changes you want to make, but you still need to understand what levers to pull and buttons to push to create the change you want. This understanding may be grounded in deep experience and knowledge or it may be more intuitive and instinctive. In my younger years I didn’t really get the concept of a company vision and values, but I knew that if I hired the wrong person it could cause big problems down the road for the team.

As you gain more experience you will understand better how purpose, people, and processes all interact to create a workplace culture. A really good culture assassin can assess the state of these elements within an organization and knows which of them to target to make the kinds of change they want.

For example, maybe it’s implementing a new recruitment and selection process to bring people into the organization who are more aligned with the culture. Maybe it’s creating a new company value focused on “speed” and streamlining processes or removing bureaucratic red tape to get people operating faster. Like a ninja targeting the weak trigger points of a human body, a good culture assassin knows where to focus their time and attention.

#3: You have a deep curiosity and openness about workplace culture.

Much of the difference between a white hat and black hat assassin comes down to intention and execution. People trying to make changes to a workplace culture typically have good intentions. However, trouble arises if they’re ignorant or don’t really understand the current culture.

A new team leader may make the mistaken assumption that her team’s culture is poor because people keep to themselves, working silently in their cubicles with their headphones on. She may have no idea of the negative impact she has when she tries to force people to interact through more frequent meetings or team-building events.

In this case, she first needs to build trust with her team and gain a deeper understanding of the current team culture and its health. Many mergers and acquisitions have failed because the parent organization didn’t approach their newest acquisition with openness and curiosity. They didn’t try to really understand what the acquired company’s culture is like, how healthy it is, and what can they learn. To make positive cultural change you need to understand the current state of the culture. This requires deep and powerful questions, a willingness and ability to listen, and an open mind.

#4: You have the authority or the influence to make change.

People trust you and you know what needs to be done to make positive changes to the workplace culture. However, none of this matters if you don’t have the authority or the influence needed to do it. “Authority” in this case means having actual power. You can implement new systems or processes, hire and fire people, spend money, etc. This is different from having “influence”. Influence comes from having strong relationships and the ability to persuade people to do things without having the actual power to make them do it. People gain influence by communicating effectively, gaining the trust of others, and suggesting or supporting initiatives that generate positive results, among other things.

Having authority allows you to make changes more easily, but doesn’t necessarily end in a better end result.

For example, it’s very easy for the head of manufacturing to suddenly decide to implement a new  process on the production floor. Because it’s so easy, however, he may not give the decision enough time and attention to make sure it’s the right thing to do. On the other hand, if a production technician wants to make the same change they would probably need to put together a PowerPoint presentation with a plan and arguments as to why it’s the right thing to. In this case the level of diligence and rigour that goes into the decision may be higher when the change is initiated by someone with influence rather than power. In either case, however, your dreams of being a culture assassin aren’t going to go far if you don’t have the authority or influence to drive change.

The morale of the story…

The most important thing to take away from this is that it’s not a bad thing to be a culture assassin. I actually think we need more people out there trying to positively impact workplace cultures. They just need the right tools to do it properly. Unlike the G.I. Joe ninja Snake Eyes, a really good culture assassin doesn’t wield swords, nunchakus, or throwing stars. They’re armed with other weapons like trust, influence, curiosity, and knowledge. And with these at your disposal just imagine the kinds of positive change you can create.