Three key principles to improve workplace culture.
Efforts to improve workplace culture can feel overwhelming, especially for managers weighed down with targets, KPIs, budgets and technical issues. It’s easy to focus on those more tangible work challenges and leave the workplace culture to sort itself out. Except, it won’t.
Workplace culture feels challenging because there are so many moving parts. It’s all about people and people are complex and not always predictable or logical (or their form of logic is entirely different to the one their manager is operating from). So, it’s much safer to fill for managers to occupy their days focusing on the tangible, rational, logical issues.
The awkward truth? If we don’t improve workplace culture, it will become increasingly hard to find sustainable solutions to those more tangible problems.
Read our blog on where culture change starts.
It’s simple not easy to improve workplace culture.
Fortunately, workplace culture doesn’t need to be so complicated. Behind the blur of people issues, improving workplace culture is simple even if it’s not easy. What’s the difference? When something is simple, we know what to do, even if it isn’t easy to do. We just need the strategies and perseverance to respond
Let’s break workplace culture down by looking at three key predictors of great workplace culture that we encounter in our client’s workplaces
- Defined expectations
- Accountability to the expectations
- Leadership role modelling and accurate leadership self insight
We will expand on each – because as great predictors of the quality of workplace culture, they are also the most effective levers you can pull to improve workplace culture.
Defined expectations improve workplace culture.
At The Real Learning Experience, we approach the world from a generous place – with the assumption that most people come to work wanting to do a good job. As managers, we just need to ensure that people know what good looks like.
What does good look like in your workplace? How about great? For defined expectations to be effective in shaping great workplace culture, they have to describe what your ideal workplace culture looks like.
It isn’t enough to say, ‘work hard and treat each other nicely.’ You need to provide an explicit target for people to aim at.
If you want a great workplace culture, define what that means and then make those your clear, consistent and communicated expectations. Again, achieving this is simple but not easy – a quick executive brainstorm won’t deliver these – but what you need to do is straightforward.
Broadly, the two main elements of work are technical performance and behavioural or cultural fit. You need ways to define each:
- Values tell people how they should act with each other. They guide behavioural choices that are consistent with your ideal workplace culture. If you don’t have values – or if your values aren’t authentic – that’s your starting point. Read our blog on values here.
- Rather than trying to define every aspect of high technical performance, connect people with why they are doing what they do. For example, we don’t over manage how our team delivers consulting, coaching and training, we emphasise why we do those things. Because people deserve great workplaces, and because workplaces deserve great people.
Organisations talk about how they want things to be – but then they accept performance and behaviour that is misaligned with that. In our language, that is inauthentic – they need to either modify what they are aiming for or change their acceptance.
Accountability is about keeping people – and their choices and behaviour – aligned with the expectations we discussed in the previous section.
The problem with expectations is that most of them aren’t written down or explicit. Most of them aren’t contained in the carefully crafted emails, posters displaying values, etc written by managers – or in the things they say to their people.
Most expectations are implied by what actually happens in the organisation. When we say we expect everyone to deliver exceptional outcomes for the people they serve, but some team members get away with mediocre performance, what is the real expectation that people perceive?
When we have a value about Kindness proudly displayed on every office wall, but gossip is rife and no-one does anything about it, what is the real expectation?
We have to be careful about what we walk past because that becomes the implied expectation. If we aren’t prepared to hold team members accountable to the behaviours and actions that support your ideal culture, give up on that ideal now.
In workplaces that are great at defining expectations but poor at accountability, we find idealistic and frustrated people who bought into a vision only to find it was wafer thin. Give them enough time and we find people who are cynical, dismissive of attempts to fix things, and who hate the culture but take no responsibility for it.
Shortly after, we see the exodus – normally of the people you want to keep while you accumulate and attract people that keep you culture anchored where it is.
What does accountability look like? It’s being prepared to look past the individual (their rank, their tenure, their prickliness and defensiveness, their perceived value) and seeing the behaviour or performance for what it is – and then insisting everyone commits to the defined expectations.
In our next blog, we will do a deep dive on accountability – subscribe below so you don’t miss it
Leadership role modelling and accurate leadership self insight.
All the defined expectations and accountability are worth nothing if leaders aren’t prepared to hold themselves to those standards. If leaders behave as though they are exempt from the defined standards – and if there is no accountability for leaders – a toxic workplace culture is just around the corner!
Team members, fearful of consequences, will do what is needed to fly under the radar, but engagement and commitment will be low. There will be issues of performance and behaviour but many of them will be buried and leaders will often have a false sense that everything is good.
This doesn’t mean leaders can’t get things wrong – they just have to own it and address it when they do. In fact (as long as screw ups aren’t a daily occurrence) that will enhance the culture in many cases.
A lot of leadership modelling depends on insight – having the self awareness to understand how our actions as a leader impact other people and how those actions are perceived (which is often different to the way we intend them).
There are two main ways to gain that insight
- Hearing the feedback from your team. If you don’t get any feedback is that because none exists? Or because you aren’t hearing it? Or because it isn’t safe to provide it. Feedback from a team member to a leader is a risk taking behaviour and if the risk is too high or the reward too remote, people will stop doing it
- Reflection – which is really ‘self feedback’. This can be in response to something that doesn’t go well or just part of your regular routine
What does it all mean?
There are dozens of actions you could take to improve workplace culture. But why wait until you understand them all (the reality is that you probably never will) before acting.
Look at these three predictors and ask yourself honestly how your culture is performing on them. Now take off those idealistic rose coloured glasses and ask the question differently. If I asked random team members, how would they respond?
Once you have reflected, see those three things as the levers you can pull to get your journey towards a great workplace culture started.