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Every organisational values statement I have ever read includes the words respect, integrity and trust. But if you were to ask staff in many organisations, you might find that those words aren’t in their experience of workplace culture.

Good workplace culture requires leadership vigilance and leading by example. In industries with considerable staff turnover, different cultural heritages and historical hierarchies, leaders can have their work cut out for them to embed and maintain a positive workplace culture.

When properly articulated and aligned with personal values, drives and needs, workplace culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and enables an organisation’s capacity to thrive.

How do leaders foster a positive workplace culture, with all the benefits that come from engaged, motivated and appreciated staff? There are 3 key areas that leaders can consciously focus on to build a good workplace culture that is often overlooked.

1. Don’t Ignore Workplace Incivility

Small tensions in workplace relationships matter! Workplace incivility is a costly risk to any business. Uncivil behaviours are characteristically slightly rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others; these low-intensity, aberrant behaviours seem ambiguous, but do cause harm.

Tolerating workplace incivility seems to be increasing. People who experience, or even witness incivility often reduce their effort and time at work. This leads to plunging morale and motivation for employees. Too often leaders discount these behaviours as a minor irritation, or personality difficulties, but it’s the tip of the iceberg indicating real workplace conflicts.

The classic example is when an employee raises concerns about the intrusive negative gossip of one member of a team. Instead of addressing the behaviour, the manager suggests moving the person who raised the issue, further from their colleague. Because that would easily solve the problem.

Creating a respectful workplace culture means leaders must quickly respond to such indicators of workplace tensions. Pay prompt attention to lower intensity emotions to avoid the high voltage variety. Looking after positive relationships means promptly challenging staff about difficult behaviours before these become entrenched.

 2. Empathic is Essential

Empathic leaders are aware of their own emotions and are practitioners of consistent curiosity and observation. They enact integrity. They know enough details of their employee’s world to build supportive, professional relationships. They look for indicators of employee’s well-being and challenges and are proactive in their care.

It is not always simple to spot an apathetic leader. In some situations, they will show concern and fairness. Yet when their own discomfort or anxieties are triggered, their attention is more focused on their own needs and not those of their staff. Apathetic leaders have a high level of pain tolerance for other employee’s problems, and a low tolerance for their own discomfort. Misguided decisions to avoid uneasiness means workplace pain is offloaded downline to team members. This will eventually ripple throughout the broader organisation. Talented staff eventually leave.

Empathic leaders take what their employees say seriously. They recognise difficult moments are an opportunity for building relationships and use coaching skills. They ask more questions and give fewer instructions and advice. They encourage employees to explore issues by offering opinions and guidance as needed.

3. Lead by Example

I’m reminded of a past experience when the interstate-based CEO visited our Adelaide office, without any announcement or any planned meet-and-greets. She would just suddenly appear in a corridor, have mysterious meetings and leave later in the day. When I once introduced myself she abruptly said “Yes, I know your name” and commenced a conversation with someone of higher status. On that particular day, she left rather early, because she’d scheduled attending the opera to cap off her trip. Needless to say, the organisation was having problems recruiting talented staff.

Office politics is the destroyer of trust. Trust is a hard thing to define, yet we know it’s built through daily engagement and working with others towards a shared purpose. Mistrust is hard to repair and highly corrosive.

There are clear indicators that workplace culture is trust-based and free from debilitating office politics:

  • Leadership is enthusiastic about ground-up, frontline experience and ideas. Employees come first;
  • Leaders take real risks for employees, they stand up for them and get them what they need when there are problems;
  • Blame and fault-finding problem-solving is frowned upon;
  • Loyalty, talent and hard work are appreciated, recognised and rewarded;

Conclusion

Good workplace culture is based on what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected by the management action. Organisational culture needs to be explicitly defined, deliberately enacted and reviewed regularly to move from mere aphorism to consciously enacted values. Respect, integrity and trust need to be active verbs in leadership behaviour.

I was delighted to have this article published in The Age Editor, Thought Leadership for Energising and Innovating, Spring 2018 edition.

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