Dear progressive movement: we need to stop treating strong culture like an afterthought.

9 min readJan 19, 2022

Head to Glassdoor to survey organizations across the social impact sector, and a not uncommon headline you’ll find reads something like this:

“Amazing people, wonderful mission, terrible management.”

One example roughly continues:

“Career advancement is incredibly politicized and infrequent, with an opaque and unclear promotion process. Leadership in general has very little respect for the staff doing the work itself. The management-staff culture both in the field and at HQ is dysfunctional. Work is siloed & often micromanaged, with little done to unleash the passion and creativity of employees who work there.”

In case it needs to be said, not all organizations suffer from these same dynamics. But this is far from an aberration. In fact, it’s closer to the sugar-coated end of the spectrum.

There is no workplace utopia — or if there is, it’s keeping a decidedly low profile — but surely, within the progressive movement, we can do better than this.

Employees across the sector are leaving jobs in search of better workplaces. The so-called “Great Resignation” is hitting here, too, with people critically reassessing their priorities, lifestyles, and choices. In a world with so many pressing global challenges demanding our attention, it feels unfathomable that we’re hemorrhaging talent simply because managers treat people like cogs in a machine. Like expendable resources. Like, well, crap.

But that’s exactly what’s happening. We’re losing strong talent, and we can’t afford that outcome if we hope to win.

In a previous survey run by our team here at Cultivate covering hundreds of employees across the progressive movement, we found that over 50% of participants left their last jobs because of bad management, unhealthy team culture, no clear pathways for advancement, inadequate compensation relative to responsibilities, or plain old burn out.

Managing people is messy, and if we were to measure the outcomes of our work purely through each teammate’s level of satisfaction, we’d be banging our heads against the proverbial wall (while neglecting so many other critical metrics of our work!).

Perfect harmony is not the goal. What is?

More function. As in, the opposite of dysfunction. We need healthier organizational cultures that function better, in service of retaining strong teams.

And we can get there.

We’re building a community of passionate people-operations folk from across the social impact sector. If that’s you, sign-up here to join our network of practitioners.

Treating people poorly is short-sighted. Always.

I heard a story once about a large, national non-profit that went something like this:

“We were all in the meeting room, from quite junior team members up through senior directors. One of the earlier-level team members began voicing an unpopular idea, and a middle manager threw a pencil at their head mid-comment. While there were more senior managers in the room, no one batted an eye. Nothing was said at all. The meeting continued uninterrupted.”

It’s easy enough to cite such a blatant, indisputable example of unhealthy culture, but there are so many other less dramatic examples. This doesn’t even scratch the surface of the innumerable microaggressions and death-by-papercut-offenses levied against team members on a weekly basis (particularly against those with marginalized identities).

Why do each of us inevitably carry so many of these stories? Why has this become normalized? Why is it not uncommon to see blacklists circulating via email listservs and social media groups with long lists of organizations or campaigns to “watch out for” — so long, in fact, that it glazes the eyes to scroll through them all?

“Treat people better?! Look at what’s at stake! Look at the opposition! Look at the community that needs serving! Look at the-goals-we-need-to-hit the-expectations-of-our-funders the-campaigns-that-need-winning the-revenue-we-need-to-keep-the-lights-on the-pressure-I feel-to-deliver! I’m not going to lower our standard of excellence to avoid hurt feelings. This work is hard, and it isn’t for everyone.”

Here and now, let’s dismantle the false dichotomy that you can either have a “touchy-feely” culture or one built around accountability. That is garbage, and it subtly upholds the idea that cruelty is a necessary means to an end.

If you think you need to be an asshole to make sure your team gets the job done, well, you’re probably wrong. Even if that drives the outcome you’re looking for in the near-term, you’re not playing to win for the long haul.

In an era where so much of our work across the movement is collaborative — where it’s tied to thinking creatively and anticipating an ever-changing landscape of challenges (including pandemics, the impacts of climate change, increased political polarization, and beyond) — it is more critical than ever that we meaningfully empower our teammates, inspiring them to take risks and speak up. If Machiavellian power-wielding ever had a place in our sector, there’s no question its time has come and gone.

We can hold ourselves to high standards and produce strong work without treating each other poorly. To think otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the power of effective management.

Rigor and basic kindness are not mutually exclusive.

More than that, to state what should be obvious: when culture is dysfunctional enough, people leave — including the strongest performers. They might not leave right away. But they leave far, far sooner than they otherwise might. And with them goes their institutional knowledge, their specialized expertise, their operational know-how, their ties to strong morale, and, sometimes, their sense that anything of real value can be accomplished in this space.

This is not a winning strategy.

At the same time, we need to be wary of wholesale dismissing anyone who falls short.

It’s dangerously appealing to hop onto our high horse and deride the strawperson of That Overly Confident, Narcissistic, Power-Hungry Leader Who Just Doesn’t Get It. Look, they exist. But by applying this blanket image to any manager who isn’t upholding our highest ideals in every moment, we may be failing to recognize that we should not expect perfection from anyone.

Leaders, like all people, are complex. We each carry our own insecurities, our own baggage, our own narratives, our own areas for growth. We gain little by demonizing everyone who misses the mark — and perhaps worse still, our own powers of empathy grow lazy.

However! It should, without question, be possible to collectively raise our threshold of expectations. We need not demand perfection. But we can, and should, expect some fairly consistent human decency.

Leading is difficult, whether we’re at the very-tippy-top of an org chart or simply have some direct reports and management responsibilities. By definition, the job includes making hard calls, anticipating pitfalls, and carrying the weight of knowing we’re responsible, at least in part, for the success and well being of those around us.

At core, effective leading is about discovering, acknowledging, and solving for our own gaps by intentionally surrounding ourselves with teammates who can complement our strengths while not disguising our own need for continued growth.

This is sometimes difficult — if it weren’t, we’d probably be having a different collective conversation — but it is also eminently achievable. And it doesn’t require anyone to be perfect.

Culture-building is rarely the end in and of itself, but we’d be foolish to underestimate its role in getting us there.

Critics of intentional culture-building offer concern that if we’re too focused internally, we‘re not actually dedicating enough time to doing the thing. Someone once shared:

“I attended a two-day retreat with organizers focused exclusively on relationships, working styles, and leadership growth. ‘This is the work,’ they claimed with fervor. ‘This is the work?!’ I wondered quietly to myself as we talked through each of our Myers-Briggs. I was stunned. We navel-gazed for hours. Meanwhile, out in the world, we were losing.”

Dismissing this critic risks ignoring a powerful perspective. There’s deep truth in this concern: ultimately, the reason we come together is indeed to enact real, tangible change out in the world. Should the pendulum swing too far in the other direction, there’s no question we’ll miss the mark. Ad nauseam navel-gazing for its own sake serves no one.

Our argument, then, is simply to recalibrate our energies a bit more in the direction of culture-strengthening.

We can handle nuance. Truly. We can at once focus on “the work out there” while better aligning the way we treat one another and structure our work with the values we profess to hold.

The good news: this isn’t rocket science.

There’s no foolproof blueprint for culture-building. But there are, without question, some tried and true approaches that can help. To preview a few:

  • Modeling norms: Culture, for better or worse, starts at the top, and those with more formal power should recognize the magnitude of impact they can achieve in shifting or embodying values through their own display. When we spend time paying lip service to ideals and then clearly illustrate just how little bearing they have on our day-to-day, our hypocrisy poisons the well.
  • Communicating regularly: When organizations or campaigns begin, they often rely on informal mechanisms for information flow. It takes little energy and even less intention to ensure the team’s “up to speed” when there are only six of us. As we grow, it’s within our power to establish new rituals of communication, with an emphasis on ensuring each team member consistently understands how they fit into the larger whole.
  • Embracing transparency: In a culture with less trust, vacuums of communication are rarely met with the benefit of the doubt. Worse yet, attempts to “spin” or, yes, gaslight teams by offering half-truths or failing to reflect their lived realities can do more damage than that of pure omission. Leaders need to be able to ask the right questions, and for sure, they need some answers. It’s when they believe they need to have them all, now, right now in this moment that things get tricky. It’s impractical. And it leads to inauthenticity. So, insofar as is possible: we need to be real with each other. The goods, the bads, and even the uglies on occasion.
  • Fair process: Research shows that people are dissatisfied with outcomes derived through unfair processes, even when the outcome itself is the one they desired. Through engagement, explanation, and expectation-setting, we can dramatically increase the chances that our teams will feel confident in our decision making and the outputs that emerge.
  • Professionalizing management: Excellence within a skill set — as an individual contributor — in no way equates to the ability to manage. Sometimes, by happy coincidence, these skills coexist. But it is far from a guarantee. The people we put in charge of other people need to be trained. We need to eradicate the assumption that increased specialization bestows powers of project management, inclusion, mentorship, or emotional intuition.

This is just a sampling, of course, and any one of these would require a certain amount of energy, time, and resources to bring to life.

But, should we choose to prioritize it, building stronger culture is not out of reach.

We don’t talk about this enough — but we can.

While conversations about unhealthy culture happen on the fringes — or when some particularly dramatic episode emerges somewhere across the space — individuals suffer.

We stretch ourselves too thin. We stress and fight and anxiety-spin. We burn out.

And that serves no one.

Stronger internal team culture won’t solve every ill. But it can at least give us a fighting chance to together do our very best work.

At risk of belaboring this point, it is so easy — too easy, dangerously easy — to criticize or tear down what exists. To claim the moral high ground, whether explicitly or subconsciously. To distance ourselves from “the other,” those stuck in the routine of perpetuating dysfunction despite themselves.

It is much, much harder to be part of building a real alternative. To chart another path.

But there is another way. We can build this better.

At Cultivate, we’re laser-focused on strengthening organizational culture because we genuinely believe there’s already so much potential within the existing movement infrastructure. If we can lessen dysfunction across the board, we can supercharge our collective ability to do good.

We’re building a community of people-focused teammates across the social impact sector: chiefs of staff, COOs, managing directors, HR specialists, talent and recruitment folk, operations managers, people managers, and more.

Could you be part of strengthening culture within your organization, or do you know someone well positioned to do so?

Join us. Sign up here to join our community of people ops practitioners.

Let’s better align our work — and our actions — with our values.

It’s how we’ll win.

Robbie Jay Ross runs partnerships at Cultivate and All Hands.




Cultivate is a career development hub for progressives.