Reshaping a Workplace Culture

The keys to success are simple but improvement requires real action.

Reshaping a Workplace Culture

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There’s a lot of emphasis these days on building a great workplace culture. Unfortunately, doing so is a lot like following through on New Year’s resolutions: Much easier said than done.

But it’s not mission impossible, either. And the rewards — ranging from more engaged employees and reduced turnover to increased innovation and improved customer satisfaction — certainly make it a goal worth pursuing, says Heidi Lynne, the owner of Heidi Lynne Consulting in Philadelphia.

Of course, the first step toward improving anything requires admitting there’s a problem. And while workplace culture can sometimes feel like a rather nebulous concept that’s difficult to quantify, it’s nonetheless fairly easy to determine if an organization’s culture is healthy, she notes.

“First and foremost, you want to look at turnover — and not just the company as a whole,” Lynne says. “You need to break it down by department and if there’s an issue, determine what the root of the problem is.”

The factors that contribute to high turnover typically are the very same indicators of a poor workplace culture. In short, companies aren’t going to win any prizes for workplace culture if they do a poor job of communicating with employees, are driven by gossip and cliques, neglect developmental training, don’t provide defined career paths, and fail to recognize and celebrate employee milestones and/or accomplishments.

“To me, a good workplace culture is where everyone comes together and feels included, welcome, comfortable and creative,” Lynne says. “It’s a place where everyone collaborates and feels like they’re part of a family — a safe environment where everyone can be their respective selves.

“And it’s more important today than ever before, especially in terms of being diverse and inclusive,” she adds. “Those things weren’t always prioritized before. Everyone must feel included, regardless of their gender and background.”

Listen to employees

A good place to start reshaping a workplace culture is an employee survey, although Lynne says she has a love-hate relationship with them because too many companies only ask generic questions — and then don’t act on the results.

“But if you create a survey that asked targeted, specific questions and you plan to use the feedback to improve the overall culture, I’m totally on board with that,” she says.

The questions that organizations should ask can vary greatly. But some generic examples could include asking what employees would do to improve the onboarding process, how well their managers provide feedback and what three things could be done to improve the organizational culture, she suggests.

Deciding what needs to be changed takes time and effort. Too often, a chief executive officer asks Lynne what kind of programs can be implemented before they even give employees a chance to weigh in, she notes.

“You need to find out what they want,” she says. “Employees want to be heard and be valued. You need to take time to ask what’s important to them and create a plan around their feedback.”

While this may seem obvious, it’s not always the case. That’s largely because generations of senior managers have built and preserved hierarchical corporate cultures based on control over employees and information. And at the same time, employees have resignedly accepted this arrangement, she notes.

“But there’s a new generation of millennials that are speaking up and speaking out, that have needs and demands and refuse to only accept what senior leadership offers,” Lynne says. “Senior leaders are starting to realize that employees are assets, that it’s not about maintaining a hierarchy, but establishing a partnership.”

Hire the right people

One of the simplest ways to build a great culture is to hire employees who mesh well with the company’s values. Of course, this presumes an organization has a set of core values and not only communicates and emphasizes them regularly to employees, but has managers and senior leadership who uphold them daily, she says.

“You can’t just have them only as decoration,” she notes. “You have to hire by them, discipline by them and fire by them.”

Hiring the right people requires job interviews that delve deeper into candidates’ personalities and suss out the quality of their soft skills, as opposed to just the typical behavioral what-would-you-do-if-you-encountered-this-situation type questions. To do this, Lynne prefers asking candidates their personal interests, how their friends would describe them — even how their enemies would describe them.

“You should create an informal environment and ease into things — find some common ground and determine their personalities,” she notes. “Then if you see gaps between their personalities and the organization’s core values, you can ask more targeted questions, like how would they provide feedback or how they’d react to feedback.”

Organizations also need to be wary of how job descriptions are written, as well as scrutinize the overall language used that can create an unwelcoming culture. For example, Lynne says managers often use gender-coded language that makes people feel excluded, especially women and members of the LGBTQ community.

The same can be true for job postings that use words like powerful, assertive and confident to describe desirable attributes. “Those are very masculine words that can dissuade women from applying,” she points out.

Communication is key

Sometimes organizations feel compelled to provide employees with “cool” perks — think foosball or ping-pong tables, video games and craft beer on tap — to improve their culture. That’s all well and good, but companies that do so run the risk of putting style ahead of substance, Lynne says.

“I’ve seen companies mimic their competitors or Google by offering fun perks, but that’s not how it works,” she says. “If a company gets crummy Glassdoor reviews but offers good perks, what has it gained? It has to go deeper than that.”

In the end, what really matters is great communication with employees and leadership that not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. For example, it helps immensely if a company that says it values feedback and wants a feedback-driven culture also has a chief executive officer that regularly walks around and visits with employees instead of remaining secluded in an office, she says.

“Or maybe a CEO that gets a lot of pushback about lack of transparency starts holding town hall events,” she adds. Of course, the corollary to that is that CEOs then have to actively act on the feedback they receive — not treat it like yet another half-hearted New Year’s resolution. 


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