Workplace Culture

6 Elements of a Healthy Workplace Culture – Part 2

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, and I talked about the first three in part one of this blog series, 6 Elements of a Healthy Workplace:

  • Communicate your values and purpose.
  • Provide meaningful work.
  • Focus your leadership team on people.

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 ACHIEVE’s findings, I recommend picking up your own copy of The Culture Question.  In the meantime, here is my summary of the final three elements of a healthy workplace culture, as articulated in the book:

4. Build meaningful relationships.

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

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

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 towards 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 once in awhile. 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.

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.

Peak performing teams can provide the structural framework needed for a healthy workplace culture.

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 really 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 own 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.

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.

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 head 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. 

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 workplace culture.

Changing Workplace 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 of 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.

In order 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 in order 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.

Author

Dan Doerksen

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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