I was talking with a woman who works in an advertising company a while back and she was complaining about her workplace culture. She was young and inexperienced. She needed a mentor and what she got was a boss who lectures her about how she dresses, what time she arrives, and what her desk looks like when she leaves. Interestingly, he’s very complimentary about her work, but his nagging about things that just don’t matter to her is about to cause her to go elsewhere. In this blog, I want to offer five suggestions that might help you improve your workplace culture.
1. Insist that everyone respect others
The world is so divided and we’re letting this division get in the way of progress. We may not be able to solve all the problems of the world, but we can insist that everyone in our organizations demonstrates respect. We can model that respect from the top and teach it at all levels.
I wrote about this recently in a blog on why businesspeople need to respect individuals.
2. Set high performance expectations
When I read about people working two full time jobs at the same time during the pandemic, it is clear to me that in our struggle to get by, some managers have lowered their expectations. We can care deeply about our employees and the struggles they are under and still have high performance expectations. And without high expectations, your team will be bored and your workplace culture will deteriorate.
You are trying to run a team, a division, or a company. And your group has a job to do. How will you measure performance? How will you insist that meaningful work is consistently delivered to the client, or to the management team?
Are you still operating under the theory that time spent at a desk equates to performance? No, it’s about delivering value. I don’t care if the ideas were created on a run or in the shower. I care that they are great ideas that work. Eventually creative teams need to develop those ideas and that can’t be done in the shower or on a run.
Insist that your teams deliver meaningful results regularly. It might be daily, weekly, or bi-weekly. I would argue that a month is too long most of the time unless the project has slowed for a valid reason.
3. Offer as much autonomy as you can, given the type of organization you run
Organizations and people are all different. Some people want more autonomy than others. Some want more challenges or power than others. And some organizations can be run virtually while others depend on people to show up for work. You can’t give a restaurant worker or hairdresser a lot of autonomy. But you can give your programmers some autonomy. No two workplace cultures will be the same and that’s okay. Your workplace culture makes your company unique and that’s what potential employees want to understand before they accept an offer.
You will have to figure out what works in your organization. And you do that by having conversations with the people who work with and for you. I generally recommend that you move those decisions down the chain of command, rather than issuing dictatorial announcements.
Does everyone really need to arrive and depart at the same time every day? Why can’t teams decide for themselves when and how they will work from home? Some teams are working on tasks which lend themselves to independent work, while others are doing work that requires collaboration. Many jobs require a combination and so well designed hybrid work can be great.
4. Have clear processes and procedures around areas that involve money
I have listened and read many debates about how to best manage people over the years and one common discussion thread is around the subject of loosening the reins on people to give them more freedom to create better solutions and enjoy a healthy workplace culture. Most people prefer leaner processes over heavily bureaucratic processes. And most understand when a more bureaucratic process needs to be in place.
As others have noted, in the world of industrial firms, managers are always trying to reduce variations — think Six Sigma. In the creative world, when people need to be innovative, we need to increase variation. As I’ve said Six Sigma is not a process that is well designed for managing people. Some people don’t want to be managed.
But we do need clear processes and procedures around areas that involve money. The company credit card cannot just be passed around to employees willy-nilly. And bank statements need to be reviewed. Accounting systems need to be appropriate to the size of the organization.
5. Don’t be afraid of difficult conversations about work
I frequently talk about work needing to be fun but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Work is supposed to be hard and when you work with people, it’s even harder. People are messy and complicated. That’s part of the fun. But we all need to learn how to have difficult conversations. I don’t particularly like it either, but it’s badly needed.
When you are trying to do hard work and doing it with other smart people, they will not all see things the same way. That’s good. You need diverse ideas, and at some point, you will likely need to choose a course of action to move forward. It may not be perfect, and you may not have as much information as you’d like to have before making the decision. But you must keep moving. Experiment and fail. Pick yourself up. Regroup and rethink.
And you may be working with people who don’t all share the same values. Suppose you are collaborating with people who have very different political positions. Ask yourself if you need to agree on that issue to make progress on the work problem you are trying to solve. You don’t have to agree with everyone on everything.
If you need some more guidance on how to have difficult conversations, check out my book review on Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny’s book Crucial Conversations — Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.
And I’d love for you to buy my book — Herding Smart Cats: Project Management Reimagined.