Workplace Culture

6 Ways to Build a Healthy Workplace Culture

What is Culture?

The word culture gets tossed around a lot, but it can seem like a vague and abstract concept, which is difficult to do anything with. We know that every organization has a workplace culture, but it’s not always easy to talk about what it is, how it’s formed, or what to do about it.

Here’s a simple way to think about it:

Culture is the personality of the organization.

When we’re speaking about individual personality, we’re asking, “What makes you, you?” It’s what you like, what motivates you, what you value, what you’re afraid of, how you interact with people, what you look like, how you respond to stress, your sense of self-confidence, whether you use a PC or Mac, and on and on.

Personality is the all-encompassing description of what makes you truly unique.

This is also true of your workplace. If your organization were a person, how would it describe itself? Is it fun, productive, and extroverted? Is it perfectionistic, is it pioneering, is it trusting? Does it handle change well?

If your organization were a person, how would it describe itself? Is it fun, productive, and extroverted? Is it perfectionistic, is it pioneering, is it trusting? Does it handle change well?

I could go on, but ultimately workplace culture can be shaped by just about anything:

  • The ways people communicate
  • The purposes that drive everyone
  • The diversity of the people
  • The origin and history of the organization
  • The design and layout of the physical space
  • The metrics you’re tracking
  • What you celebrate (and how you celebrate)
  • What is considered failure (and how that failure is handled)
  • The quality of relationships that exist
  • What the lunchroom smells like

The culture both shapes its members and is shaped by its members.

Why Does Workplace Culture Matter?

Like personalities, some aspects of our culture are healthier than others.

Some workplace cultures are so unhealthy, you might diagnose them as having something like a personality disorder. Some people, for example, lack empathy for others and have a poor inner sense of right and wrong – can you think of any companies that act like that?

This is why paying attention to culture matters. If we don’t practice self-awareness, things can quickly get dysfunctional. Relationships get strained, quality starts slipping, turnover goes up, sick days rise – it all goes south together.

Monitoring your organization’s culture is about monitoring its health. Individually, if your physical, relational, or mental health was failing, you’d want to be able to recognize that and take steps to reverse course.

Organizationally, if employees don’t like their jobs and customers would rather not be associated with your brand, you need to pay attention to that too.

The Culture Question

In 2019, ACHIEVE surveyed over 2,400 employees from a diverse range of industries and workplaces across North America to answer the question, “What makes a great place to work?”

The goal was to find people who genuinely like their jobs to discover the common themes that exist across their settings.

What ACHIEVE found were six elements that consistently showed up in the best places to work. The best part is that these are elements that you, as a manager, can influence (and you don’t need an MBA to do it).

For the full report on their findings, I recommend picking up your copy of The Culture Question.

In the meantime, here is my summary of the 6 elements of a healthy workplace culture, as articulated in the book:

1. Communicate your values and purpose.

If you’ve read any leadership or business books at all, you’ll have heard terms like vision, values, purpose, and mission repeated.

There’s a simple reason why everyone keeps banging this drum: They’re super important.

To build successful organizations, there are certain things you just need to know:

  • Why do you exist? This is your purpose or mission.
  • How will the future be different because you exist? This is your vision.
  • What will you do to accomplish these ends? This is your strategy.
  • Which principles will guide how you do your work? These are your values.
  • Most founders know the answers to these questions.

The problem arises when the answers exist solely in the leaders’ heads.

Mentioning values and purpose at an annual meeting, in a couple of emails, and in an internal newsletter is nowhere close to adequate.

This works if there are no employees on the scene, but as soon as the organization starts growing, these answers need to be communicated to employees loudly and often.

John Kotter, a Harvard professor, believes that leaders under-communicate these realities by a factor of ten. Mentioning values and purpose at an annual meeting, in a couple of emails, and in an internal newsletter is nowhere close to adequate.

Your purpose and values need to be infused into your organization’s DNA. They should show up at meetings, in your hiring process, in your training, in your planning, on your wall, and yes, in your emails and newsletters. Make a goal for yourself and try to tie these statements in naturally in at least one communication per week.

Those with healthy and thriving cultures not only have clear values and a clear purpose – but they also find ways to drive them deep into the fabric of the organization.

2. Provide meaningful work.

For some people, work is simply trading time for money. They’ll show up, and you give them a paycheque. Done deal.

Some of these employees can be consistent and loyal additions to our teams, but I think we all agree that they are not the rockstars in the organization.

Our most driven and innovative employees have tapped into a motivation that runs much deeper than money.

Managers who effectively engage their people realize that external motivators like pay and benefits are less important than the internal motivators that drive people – purpose, achievement, recognition, autonomy, affiliation, power, mastery, community, etc.

Humans need to have meaning. We need to know why our work matters and how it affects other people. Mindless, repetitive tasks are sometimes okay, but they quickly sap our motivation and productivity. Making business owners more profitable is far from enough motivation for the average person to do their best work.

The problem starts when jobs are first designed. Typically, a job is created because work needs to get done, which is straightforward. Create a long enough list of tasks and hire someone to do them, right? This approach is fine if you’re hiring a cyborg, but it doesn’t always work so well with humans.

Jobs should recognize the needs of the whole person – relational, physical, intellectual, emotional – and don’t require staff to hit pause on those needs until they clock out.

It’s backward to believe that all our deepest desires and motives need to be met in the hours after work. The traditional compartmentalization of life and work needs to give way to a more integrated approach.

Humans need to have meaning. We need to know why our work matters and how it affects other people.

The “work hard, play hard” attitude doesn’t produce the rich and sustainable life that we all want. The common denominator in that sentiment is “hard” – it’ll burn you out.

Integration is key, especially for the younger generation.  They’re asking, “How does my job weave into the larger purposes of my life? How does it align with who I am, what I’m good at, and what I like to do?”

One of the ways you can ensure your team has a huge head start in this pursuit of meaning is to hire well. If someone is the wrong fit for your culture or doesn’t have the necessary talent and aptitude for the position, it will be very difficult for them to find meaning in their work.

At the heart of our culture are people. Managers of healthy workplaces have learned to ask not only what the work needs, but also what the worker needs.

3. Focus your leadership team on people.

There is one factor in a workplace that can undermine all your efforts to motivate your employees: Poor relationships with managers.

According to Gallup’s research, 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores is connected to management.

In short, if things aren’t great between an employee and their direct supervisor, there’s very little a company can do to make up for that. These relationships decrease motivation, productivity, and personal health – all of which lead to a rise in costly trends like absenteeism and turnover.

What do people want in a manager? Quite simply, they want someone who treats them like a human being and cares about them. This means recognizing them as employees and individuals with unique personalities, ambitions, and interests. It means caring about how they’re developing and growing while they’re with you. It means providing feedback and affirming their strengths. It means empowering them, not just directing them.

It means leaving old school behind and learning how to lead a new generation.

This doesn’t mean that managers need to turn into therapists, but it does mean that the relationship needs to be about more than just getting your employees to be more productive.

Focusing your leadership on people starts right at the beginning, the moment you decide who to hire or promote into management.

In some settings, managers believe their job is to focus on the work while the “soft stuff” like personal development, conflict resolution, and healthy communication is best handled by HR professionals.  This only serves to damage the relationship between managers and employees in the long run.

Yes, managers are responsible for the work, but at the core of their role is the need to lead people.

Focusing your leadership on people starts right at the beginning, the moment you decide who to hire or promote into management. While it’s tempting to promote people who excel at their current job, or who have been in the department the longest, these are not the most important factors to consider.

It’s critical that we hire and promote people into management positions who have the talent and aptitude for leading people, not just overseeing production. This requires them to have relational and technical proficiency.

Few things will derail your efforts at a healthy culture faster than poor management.

4. Build meaningful relationships.

Next to relationships with managers, poor relationships with coworkers may be the most powerful indicator of an unhealthy culture.

Spending half your day with people that you don’t like can sap your motivation in a way that few other things can.

In fact, not only do healthy relationships at work increase motivation, but they also increase productivity. In one study, Stanford researchers discovered that people persisted on a difficult task 48-64% longer when they believed that they were working on the task with someone else (even when that wasn’t true).

Despite Western culture’s strong emphasis on independence, we are social creatures to the core. We thrive personally and professionally in settings with healthy relationships.

And yes, this is even true for introverts. Positive Psychologist Gillian Mandich has pointed out that frequent positive interactions with others, even strangers, are a key part of well-being and happiness for both extroverts and introverts.

Does this mean it’s a manager’s job to act as a social coordinator for their team? Kind of, yes.

Don’t worry, this doesn’t have to be complicated. People build friendships at work in the same way they do anywhere else. Simple factors like proximity, frequency, and common ground are the basic building blocks of a friendship – giving the workplace a huge head start already. Throw in a little informal conversation and the opportunity to get together outside of work, and studies show that you’re well on your way toward turning coworkers into friends.

This isn’t a science, and you certainly can’t force it, but there are ways to make it more likely. Create physical spaces that allow people to connect. Don’t be quite so quick to shut down the non-work-related chit-chat. Learn together as a team. Create shared goals. Help coworkers understand each other’s strengths. Get off-site occasionally. Or here’s a controversial one – let your team in on the hiring process so they have a say in who their coworkers will be.

For people to like where they work, they need to like who they work with.

Despite Western culture’s strong emphasis on independence, we are social creatures to the core. We thrive personally and professionally in settings with healthy relationships.
5. Create peak-performing teams.

Teams are a trend that every organization needs to pay attention to. They can be a hugely effective way to increase motivation and boost performance.

Teams have the potential to generate better ideas, move to action faster, keep people on track and motivated, and provide a sense of group identity and belonging within the larger organization.

If they’re done well, that is.

If they’re not, they can slow things way down, involve hours of unnecessary coordination and meetings, and even stifle innovation as biases like groupthink creep in.

Most of the negative potential of teams comes from a lack of understanding of what a team is and an inability to properly build one.

While most organizations want to believe that they have teams, building them is not as easy as taking a loosely connected group of individuals and slapping the term “team” on them.

It’s also not as easy as having a couple of “team-building” events on the calendar each year. (Nothing like the awkward experience of trying to untangle the “human knot” with your coworkers, right?)

These can certainly be beneficial, but they need to be part of a much bigger plan for deliberately and consistently helping people relate and work together.

Managers and team leaders need to understand dynamics such as informal group roles, stages of team development, decision-making processes, and how to coordinate the team’s different strengths in the best way possible.

In other words, don’t just call someone a team leader – train them and help them succeed.

If you get it right, these peak-performing teams can provide the structural framework needed for a healthy workplace culture.

6. Practice constructive conflict management.

People leave organizations because of poor relationships.

It’s important, then, to pay attention to how they fall apart in the first place and learn to correct this before it escalates.

Most people struggle to know what to do when there is conflict and tension between them and others.  Can you leave it alone and hope things get better on their own? Do you always have to address every little instance?

Our instinctual response to conflict is the classic fight, flight, or freeze. Run away, aggressively confront it, or stand still and hope it goes away.

Managers don’t have this luxury. They need to transcend these basic instincts and discover healthier ways to manage conflict.

An interesting finding from ACHIEVE’s survey responses is that most of the time when there is conflict on a team, employees will blame their leader for it. Even if the leader is not directly involved, people expect them to step up and take ownership of the situation.

While the people involved in the conflict are ultimately responsible for resolving it, they’re also looking to you as the leader to see what you’re going to do about it. They want to know if you care and where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

They may also just need your help. They may not be sure what to do and are afraid of making things worse. Don’t take away their responsibility to manage their conflict, but do provide support in the process.

This is tricky territory for a manager to navigate. You want to provide support, but you also need to avoid what’s referred to as the “Conflict Triangle.”

As a manager, it can be easy to get caught in the middle of a conflict, with each party trying to win you over to their side. Our tendency is to have one of two responses:

  1. We do nothing and hope that they’ll sort it out on their own.
  2. We take a side and start treating one person like the victim and the other like the villain.

Neither response typically ends well.

In option 1, it sends the signal that we don’t care. Now, there is not only a divide between employees but also between us and them. In other words, we’ve become a villain in their story, and they’ll look elsewhere (perhaps going over our heads to another manager) to find their ally.

The trouble with option 2 is that this is real life, not some fairytale, and the line between victim and villain is rarely clear. It takes two parties for a relationship to disintegrate, and both individuals have made decisions and acted in ways that have made the conflict worse. 

While the people involved in the conflict are ultimately responsible for resolving it, they’re also looking to you as the leader to see what you’re going to do about it.

When a manager sides with one person over the other, this serves to further deepen the divide that’s forming in the organization.

As third parties in a conflict, our goal is to try to change the story for them. If they come to us with a clear tale of victims and villains, we want to listen with empathy but also gently challenge their black-and-white narrative. What if the other person wasn’t trying to be hurtful? What if there are misunderstandings and miscommunication here? We want to help them see another angle to the story and gain some level of empathy for their coworker.

Learning to deal with conflict constructively is a key skill for a manager to sharpen when building a healthy culture.

Changing Culture

As you read these six elements of a healthy workplace culture, you might have an intuitive sense of where you’re strong and where you’re weak. The truth is, we probably have room to grow in all the areas, but likely there are one or two that need more of our attention.

When attempting to change your workplace culture, the first step is always assessment – you have to know where you are.

To help you start, ACHIEVE offers a free Workplace Cultural Health Assessment to give you a sense of where you may be in each of these six areas.

This initial assessment is helpful because it forces you to stop and reflect on your culture and will give you the words and concepts you need to make sense of it all. The report it generates will also offer something tangible that you can use to start conversations with your team. All of this brings the abstract concept of culture back down to earth, making it more accessible for the average manager.

As helpful as it will be, however, you need to remember that this assessment is only reflecting your understanding as a manager. While we don’t always want to admit it, it’s easy to become insulated in leadership roles and lose touch with what things look like on the ground. Just because we think something is true of our culture doesn’t mean it is.

To get a more accurate picture of your organization, you’ll need to go one step further and get your team members to assess the culture from their perspective.

This is where our team at ACHIEVE loves to come in and help organizations. We’ll run your entire team through the assessment and generate a report that shows you exactly where your organization is on the spectrum of cultural health. You can even dial in the process to see the difference across departments and teams, allowing you to discover the cultural “bright spots” in your setting.

We’ll take it one step further as well and conduct confidential interviews with your team to add depth to the process. This is where we uncover the stories that reveal a three-dimensional picture of your culture.

Our team would love to partner with you in taking your first steps towards a healthier workplace culture. Learn more about the full process here.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page. Check out more great blogs by Dan here.


Dan Doerksen

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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