What is healthy workplace culture?
The phrase workplace 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: Workplace 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.
The word culture gets tossed around a lot, but it can seem like a vague and abstract concept…Culture is the personality of the organization.
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?
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.
In fact, 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.
Monitoring your organization’s culture is about monitoring its health.
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 in order 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, have the ability to influence (and you don’t need an MBA to do it).
For the full report on their findings, I recommend picking up your own copy of The Culture Question.
In the meantime, here is my summary of the first three 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 over and over again.
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 have 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 the way in which 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.
This works as long as 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, 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 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 workplace cultures not only have clear values and a clear purpose – 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 that effectively engage their people realize that external motivators like pay and benefits are less important than the internal motivators that really 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 the business owners more profitable is far from enough motivation for the average person to do their best work.
Managers of healthy workplaces have learned to ask not only what the work needs, but also what the worker needs.
The problem starts when jobs are first designed. Typically, a job is created because work needs to get done, which is pretty 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 backwards 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.
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 headstart 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 are 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 not just as employees but as 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 management styles 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.
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 the 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 that have the talent and aptitude for leading people, not just overseeing production. This requires them to have relational and technical proficiency.
Very few things will derail your efforts at a healthy culture faster than poor management.
These three aspects of a healthy workplace culture form a strong foundation on which to build a better organization. The three remaining pillars of a healthy workplace are explored in the following blog: 6 Elements of a Healthy Workplace – Part 2. Subscribe to our newsletter to be notified about our upcoming blogs.
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