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How to Create a Positive Culture and Keep It On Track

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How do you know your company culture is positive and on track? Many of the signs are clear: low turnover, a great company reputation among customers and potential employees, and an innovation mindset. Some of the signs are more subtle: leaders interact with employees regularly; rewards recognize individuals by name; and no one tolerates gossip, backbiting, or finger-pointing.

If that is the type of company and team you want to lead and work in, you’ve succeeded—at least for now. Day after day, you have to work at keeping that positive culture on track.

Build Core Values

While it may be easiest in the short run to hide defects in products, refuse to accept responsibility for mistakes, and regularly cheat both your customers and employees, eventually the damage to your reputation and the legal penalties will destroy your team and your company.

If you want a positive culture, you need to recognize and defend the core values of safety, honesty, integrity, and kindness. Once you define your core values:

  • Be transparent. The more open you are about your values and the more you demonstrate your commitment to them, the more people will believe you. If you hide some information from employees or customers, they will believe you are hiding more.
  • Recognize the rights and needs of employees. Employees need to feel pride in their contribution, trust in each other and their leadership, and the security of knowing that everyone is held to the same standard. Each time you lose an employee because of unfair, unsafe, or unethical practices, you slide toward a negative culture.
  • Recognize the rights and needs of customers. When the Boeing company’s 737 airplanes fell out of the sky, the company believed they could fix their troubles by meeting the demands of airline companies and government regulators. They forgot the people who flew in the planes, who were hesitant about trusting their lives to 737s regardless of what airline executives and regulators thought. A company’s core values affect everyone the company touches.

Set Boundaries and Respect Them

Study after study has shown that extreme competition at work, relentless hours, and interrupted home life and vacations cause employee engagement to plummet, innovation to stagnate, and stress and burnout to explode. Respectful boundaries ensure that you and other leaders treat employees as adults with their own priorities. A positive culture will:

  • Give employees control over their time. Employees need time off to build their resiliency, try new things, build relationships, focus on their health, and reduce stress. As far as possible, given the industry you are in, employees should have control over their own work and breaks as long as they are meeting deadlines.
  • Accept respectful disagreement. In a positive culture, disagreement leads to better products, services, and processes as everyone criticize ideas constructively, tries for win/win resolution of conflicts, handles private issues privately, and praises each other publicly.
  • Communicate clearly and often. When people feel abandoned by their leaders, they find leadership elsewhere. You should be speaking to your team regularly, giving them the individual feedback and support they need immediately.

TIP: Before someone crosses a boundary, consider how you will handle it so that you can address the problem calmly and professionally in the moment.

Invest in Employees and Leaders

An article in Entrepreneur magazine cites research that proves the relationship between a focus on profits and seriously unethical behavior. In addition, after exposure to one unethical person, other employees have a 46% greater chance of behaving unethically themselves. A culture may start out positive but the demand for greater profits and a refusal to confront bad behavior will rapidly turn it into a negative culture.

When you invest in a positive culture, you find ways to:

  • Improve infrastructure. The pandemic pointed to the importance of investing in high-quality, multiple communication channels and technologies and in ensuring that employees are comfortable with their use. It also highlighted the difficulties that arise when a workspace is less than optimum—a situation faced by many who worked from home for the first time. Improvements in infrastructure improve the culture.
  • Ask what employees need. Again, during the pandemic, companies with a positive culture recognized that employees working from home or in essential services faced new challenges around child care, safety, and resources. Some of them provided child-care services, increased safety regulations, and help with setting up better internet or home equipment. Rather than waiting for a pandemic to reveal the needs of your team and employees, ask now.
  • Train your champions. A positive culture needs the support and understanding of leaders and champions at every level. According to the Ethics Research Council, 60% of unethical behavior in a company stems from its managers—and that’s only the start of the damage that an unethical, bullying, disengaged, or simply clueless manager can cause. By investing in leadership training, coaching, and support, a company creates the leaders and champions a positive culture needs.
  • Focus on accomplishments. A positive culture supports a growth mindset in employees and encourages them by investing in opportunities to learn and expand their experience. It invests in recognizing and rewarding individuals for their accomplishments, by name and with specific details, in a way that the individual finds significant.

TIP: Rewards should reflect both the company’s core values and the individual employee’s preferences: for example, some people appreciate a day off more than lunch with the CEO.

Encourage Innovation

Stagnant companies are characterized by cut-throat internal competition, which increases the fear of failure and creative risk; a lack of champions or incentives for new ideas; and a “not invented here” mentality which works against collaboration. A positive culture encourages innovation that not only keeps the company at the forefront of the marketplace but also promotes engagement and excitement among employees, leading to lower turnover, higher productivity, and a reputation for attracting and rewarding talent.

Creating a culture that appreciates innovation is not easy but you can start with these strategies:

  • Try 15% time. First introduced at 3M, this strategy allows employees to dedicate 15% of their time to doodling, experimenting, and daydreaming, one of the best ways to come up with innovative ideas.
  • Hire for diversity, not conformity. Innovation results from differences in perspective and the ability to see connections in a new way. Generational, gender, racial, and ability differences all bring unique perspectives if they are allowed to flourish.
  • Use SMaRT strategies for problem-solving and decision making. Giving a diverse workforce time to daydream is great, but you also have to give them a place at the table when problems are solved and decisions made. Otherwise, great ideas and initiative will be lost forever.

TIP: An innovation management pipeline is essential for making sure that great ideas are captured.

Key Takeaways

A positive company culture is one that respects core values, boundaries, and innovation and invests in both employees and leaders. To keep a company culture on track requires constant surveillance and thought, from recognizing the needs of customers to hiring for diversity.

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