So many of us, one year into this global pandemic, are experiencing ‘COVID fatigue’, particularly in recent times, when our local situation reached crisis levels and businesses had to close again, with the hope we started the year with due to the promise of the vaccine somewhat dwindling, and the morale of many at work being impacted.

Concepts such as contagion, super-spreaders, safety, protection, resistance and immunity are well-ingrained and we are tired of talking about them, but what if they could take a different meaning and inject us with renewed energy, especially in the workplace?            

In my last article I shared that, now more than ever, especially when we are so fatigued, we need a positive revolution, particularly at work. One of the best places to start is by taking a look at your company culture. What exactly do we mean by this? Company culture is defined as the shared assumptions, values, tacit beliefs and attitudes which shape the workplace environment, and the related behaviours that stem from this.

It’s simply ‘the way we do things around here’ – in other words, the way we do business, treat our customers, communicate and get along with our colleagues, as well as our leadership style. Other important aspects of workplace culture include work/life balance, demand or workload, fair distribution of work, levels of employee autonomy, participation in decision-making processes, social support mechanisms and feeling valued and appreciated.

If you had to do a quick company health check, how would you define the company culture you have created?

And, if we asked your employees, would they describe the culture in your company in the same way? Are you known as an employer of choice? Is there a positive atmosphere, or are there pockets of negativity and toxicity? What would your customers say they experience when they connect with you? Does this resonate with the values you espouse?

Conducting regular culture pulse check-ups will help you answer these questions. This is particularly important now, when much of our workforce is working remotely and it becomes more challenging to have a finger on the pulse of employee experience, especially when you can no longer walk through offices and pick up on the more tangible ‘vibe’ in the air.

Building a positive workplace culture is becoming one of the biggest competitive advantages in today’s economy, and now more than ever, it should be the number one priority for any company to invest in. Striving to maintain or create a healthy organisational culture is one of the building blocks to a successful, innovative and productive workplace, and if a company gets this right, the rest will often naturally fall into place. Investing in a positive workplace culture can lead to engaged and healthy employees who feel valued and supported in their workplace environment, and who are then motivated to give their best at work.

Culture, however, doesn’t just grow on its own, it needs work to build it and tend to it.  Organisations need to consciously create and nurture the culture they want, rather than letting one simply evolve. Much like coronavirus, leaving it (culture) unattended and to its own devices risks the spread of toxic negativity which, without positive strategies to combat it and create the necessary immunity to it, is likely to have damaging effects on the company’s performance.

In fact, a study conducted in 2004 by Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy investigating high performing versus medium and low performing senior management teams found that the outstanding difference in team performance was linked to the ratio of positive to negative interactions and communication patterns between team members. In low performing teams, negativity had infiltrated into the culture, and there were three times as many negative and toxic interactions to positive ones – and this negatively impacted performance. To turn this around and create high performing teams, they found that simply reversing the formula was not sufficient, and in fact, it required almost six times as many positive interactions to negative ones to create optimal performance and protect teams against the damaging effects of negativity.

So, how can a company start inoculating itself against a toxic workplace culture, particularly in these stressful pandemic times where negativity could be rifer and go viral?

First of all, it’s important to stress that changing an organisation’s culture is not an easy process, particularly if negativity has infected it! It requires substantial time, resources, support and input from both leaders and employees. Leaders most definitely need to set the tone, but it requires all employees to work together to shape the culture, and it is not something that can be simply created from the top and rolled down.

One of the first steps a company can take is to start by assessing their culture to get baseline benchmark measures, and use these to facilitate change, track progress and evaluate interventions. Taking a culture pulse check involves asking employees how they currently experience the culture, particularly if they have moved to remote or hybrid working practices, and asking for ways they feel it could be improved.

The next steps are working on defining the company culture they want to strive towards, developing a road map for this, and launching a strategy to embed it into the company’s DNA. Everyone at work is then encouraged to live out the culture and values in their daily interactions, both with internal and external stakeholders, and leaders play a pivotal role in both encouraging and modelling this. A company can then take a yearly audit of their culture, along with measuring employee engagement and satisfaction levels, and from this feedback, gauge what’s working well, find new solutions to what is still challenging, and continue to grow and evolve.

Once the desired culture is defined, where does one actually start to create a positive culture at work?

Simon Sinek, a thought leader in the business world, has delivered one of the most watched TED talks (with over 50 million views) and written a book encouraging companies to ‘Start with Why’ and focus on their core purpose. Companies need to be clear on the fundamental reason they exist and what meaningful contribution they make to society.

He describes, in his Golden Circle model, that many companies make the mistake of focusing on what they do and how they do it, but very few start with why they do what they do – yet this should be core to any company. Now more than ever, younger generations want to be connected to a meaningful purpose that goes beyond making money, and therefore connecting people to purpose within a company is vital. The best employees remain with companies that focus on personal meaning and success. And companies that place purpose before profits actually generate bigger profits in the long run anyway!

Purpose, however, is only one part of a company’s core culture. Very much connected to this are values. Where purpose represents the ‘why’ of the company, values are the fundamental, distinctive and enduring ‘how’. They guide how employees within the company do their work, and must underpin everything people do. When defining company values, it is important that they don’t end up as some meaningless plaque on the wall or in some manifesto in a staff induction document, but rather that they are well communicated so that they can be embedded in the culture. When it comes to values, what is most powerful is that people actually ‘walk the talk’ and the daily interactions and running of the business clearly demonstrate those values in action.

Both purpose (the ‘why’) and values (the ‘how’), need to guide the priorities within the company strategy (the ‘what’) to successfully achieve its goals. The next steps therefore are to ensure that internal practices (such as systems and processes for recruitment and selection, training and development, performance management, internal communications and so on) and external practices (such as products and services offered, and interactions with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders) are all aligned with the core culture. And finally, companies must ensure that their branding, marketing and public relations should all consistently portray to the outside world the core company culture.

What can positive psychology contribute to building positive workplace cultures, and how can leaders become super-spreaders of kindness and positivity to create cultures of happiness and wellbeing?

In his book, ‘Give and Take’, Wharton professor Adam Grant highlights how leader kindness and generosity strongly relate to team and organisational effectiveness. He encourages leaders to start by asking themselves:

  • In what ways am I contributing to the current culture?
  • When I show up to work, is it with a positive or negative attitude?
  • Do I show my employees respect and positively value their contributions?
  • What about expressing gratitude and kindness, do I consciously do this?
  • What messages am I imparting to my teams during tough times?
  • What values are being promoted? How am I modelling and encouraging these?

Michelle Burke, Founder and President of the Energy Catalyst, highlights some key strategies to help cultivate a positive workplace environment where people can perform at their best. She encourages leaders to promote positive communication, focus on appreciating and valuing others, and treating their workforce with respect. Meanwhile, Lisa Sansom from Corporate Culture Pros adds other positive strategies such as gratitude practices and random acts of kindness to the list of positive culture building tools. She suggests CEOs should be the biggest champions of company culture and encourages them to visibly and authentically model it in all they do, inspiring employees to follow suit. 

Sheila Margolis adds to this by highlighting that although the pandemic has resulted in people having to practice physical distance, and many companies have implemented work-from-home policies to support this, it is vitally important to maintain social connection (and not social distance as many wrongly express), and thereby create cultures of connection, care and collaboration to support employees through these challenging times. Keeping people connected through virtual meetings, phone conversations and a range of digital tools is imperative, and many online tools can be used to creatively implement positive strategies even within a remote working context.

Finally, what are the benefits of creating a positive workplace culture and why should companies invest in this?

According to Hays, research shows that:

  • happier workplaces achieve 4.5 times the revenue growth of less happy workplaces;
  • engaged employees are 50 per cent more likely than average to outperform their individual targets;
  • companies with high levels of employee engagement improved their operating income by 19.2 per cent, whilst those with low engagement declined by 32.7 per cent;
  • positive emotions are proven to increase motivation and collaboration amongst staff;
  • happy people are known to be more creative, innovative and flexible, which are vital to help companies navigate the unchartered territories and challenges they are faced with in current times.

If you would like to know more about how you can be a super-spreader of positivity and build positive workplace cultures to prevent the toxic and destructive spread of negativity in the workplace, as well as build resilience in such challenging times, Thrive Positive offers Positive Culture Building Programs that focus on creating cultures of abundance and care. Contact Mireille Pellegrini Petit for more information.

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