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Great workplace culture - what is it and how do we get it?

I recently created a LinkedIn poll to assess what topics people wanted to hear about. The offering was psychological safety, mindful leadership, career empowerment and improving workplace culture. The top response was improving workplace culture (36%), followed by psychological safety (31%) – these two topics represented 67% of responses! This makes a lot of sense because these topics are entirely related - psychological safety is foundational to having a good workplace culture. My sense is there is good and bad news about the results of this survey.

Bad news – a lot of people being interested in strategies to improve workplace culture + psychological safety tells me we have much work to do.

Good news – a lot of people being in interested in strategies to improve workplace culture + psychological safety means we have multiple change agents for good in our workplaces (great start point)!

I will be honest, workplace culture actually wasn’t the topic I thought would be chosen. And I had to put some thought into how I define it, as its one of those topics that could be looked at from multiple perspectives. After some reflection, my personal definition of workplace culture would be something like the following:

Workplace culture is the way people interact and get things done in a workplace. It encompasses what is written and talked about (values, mission statements, employee handbooks).

But even more telling and reflective of a workplace culture is how people interact behind closed doors, when no one is watching.

Workplace culture can be observed in the way people work together, what is rewarded, what is celebrated and how individual and organizational challenges and conflict are managed. With that said, here are some of my thoughts on improving workplace culture:

  • Help employees make sense of your culture & then codify it. "Culture" can feel abstract. Many companies have a mission, values or purpose statement, but oftentimes employees feel they are just words on a wall or a website. Employees will be more connected to a company’s mission, values and purpose if they are translated into concrete actions and behaviors that a person can see themselves in. For example – a value of “trust” in and of itself may not mean much to an employee, but if you translate it into real behaviors, it will:

“Trust at our company means we always start from a place of benefit of the doubt in difficult interactions with customers and colleagues.”

Once you “translate” important attributes of culture, codify and reinforce them. Share what the actions and behaviors look like in real time. A great example of this is Hubspot’s “Culture Code” – a 128 page slide deck that is continually evolving, and which makes it very clear who they are as a company and what is expected of employees. The slide deck is public - what an amazing resource for prospective and current employees to understand what its “really like” to be a part of their team.

  • Facilitate connection – Workplace culture comes down to how humans interact with other humans in the workplace. And humans are wired for connection. Over and over again, when I am speaking to employees about a decision to stay or leave an organization, some version of “its the people” arises as a “sticky” point in terms of commitment to an organization. Our everyday experiences with the people we work with impact our experience of culture significantly. And we feel more connected to (and will work better with and harder for) people that we know and understand on a deeper level. I am not suggesting everyone needs to be an “open book”,

but smart workplaces and leaders will orchestrate opportunities for connection and deeper understanding of colleagues, outside of our professional roles and titles.

An example of this is a client who has every new employee complete an “employee profile” which covers everything from personal passions, to favorite drink to a “you will know I am triggered when” question. Creating connection oftentimes requires vulnerability - leaders go first.

  • Build psychological safety – Psychological safety means fear isn’t present in the workplace and as such, people don’t hold back from being who they are and fully expressing themselves. Psychological safety is not something we can presume is present on all teams. In fact, it’s a dynamic that has to be actively and intentionally cultivated (which could be a separate article). Psychological safety is critical for a number of important reasons. Organizations are rightly focused on diversity, inclusion & belonging efforts, but if safety isn't present, people will hold back from expressing who they are, and their true views and experience, and we are never actually achieving the true inclusion and belonging piece of the equation. Psychological safety is also the “secret sauce” to unleash creativity and innovation.

Put simply, psychological safety is a powerful prerequisite to the workplace meeting our basic foundational human needs of safety, love & belonging and esteem. Meeting basic foundational human needs = a necessary start point for great workplace culture.
  • Pay close attention to what is celebrated, rewarded and invested in – What an organization celebrates, rewards and invests in sends a very strong message about what it values, and that has a impact on culture. Make sure that your celebrations, rewards and investments are reinforcing the behaviors you want to see, and your aspirations for who you want to be as an employer.

Remember, culture is found not just in words spoken, but in real behaviors.
  • On the topic of celebration, do more of it. There is enough going on in our world to keep us serious, worried, distracted and disconnected. Everyone needs more joy. Celebrate wins at work and outside of work. Make your workplace a place that values everything that people bring to the table, both professionally and personally. Have fun. Be playful. Show personality. See point about “facilitate connection”.

  • Develop your leaders – Culture is co-created by everyone, but let’s remember that it all “starts at the top”. Never forget that managers account for up to 70% of employee engagement. Leadership does not come naturally to everyone. If you want to have a healthy workplace culture, consider how you are equipping your leaders for their critical role as “culture architects”.

With the “Great Resignation” amongst us, organizations cannot be leaving something as important as workplace culture to chance. I would love to hear your thoughts on what workplace culture is, and ideas for how each of us can contribute to an improved one.

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