Positive practices to transform your workplace culture
Amazon Bestselling Author and Well-Advised Consulting Inc. Owner and President Deborah Connors sheds light on the importance of positive culture in building more effective workplaces.
There’s something about hearing you’ve done a great job from your boss that just makes you feel good. Whether you acknowledge it or not, we all need positive reinforcement every now and then. As it turns out, it’s not only a kind gesture but a tangible way to increase productivity and efficiency in the workplace as well.
Deborah Connors, author of A Better Place to Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture, believes that a positive culture is the cornerstone of every strong workplace. That includes leadership that genuinely cares about its team and their success, to employees who want to contribute to the best of their abilities.
One of the topics covered in your book is transformational leadership. What are the qualities that make a transformational leader in the workplace?
Connors: A transformational leader tends to be more vision-focused versus conventional leadership that is more focused on problem-solving. They tend to use more appreciative inquiries such as asking their team what is going right and how they can build on things. Questions that focus a lot more on outcomes, versus giving direction.
My book is focused on in-depth interviews with organizational health experts. One of the examples that Dr. Robert Quinn, co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan, gave me was a CEO who started asking employees the question “what is the result you want to see?” He found that people were coming to him with their problems and wanting him to fix those problems. When he started asking that question and telling people to come back to him when they knew the result they wanted to see, by the time they came back knowing that result — they also knew how they were going to get there.
It changed the culture more than anything else this CEO had done by getting people to come to their own conclusions and create their own vision versus him doing all the problem-solving.
Speaking of problem-solving, team conflict can often arise in the workplace as pressure and deadlines mount. How can you effectively deal with team conflict and clashing personalities?
Connors: I think it’s important to set your team up with a really good set of guidelines from the beginning. Be clear about their roles on the team, the purpose and objectives of the team, and make sure meetings are positive. When you follow those guidelines, you have less conflict.
In terms of having positive meetings, we know that the most effective teams have five positive interactions to every one negative interaction. Most teams are at a one-to-one, so they’re not that effective. You need to have conversations as a team about language and keeping it positive, even doing things like starting your meeting with a win and things that increase positive emotion. As a team leader, you can start a meeting by recognizing someone on the team or appreciating them. People are doing amazing things all the time, but we don’t mention them often enough and instead focus on acknowledging people when something goes wrong.
There are a lot of ways we can avoid having conflicts, but of course, you’re going to have them regardless. While researching my book, I interviewed Mary Ann Baynton, the Program Director for the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace. She will sit down with every person on a team, ask four questions, and pool that together into a shared vision for the team.
The first question is “what is already good?” The second question is “what would need to change for you to be excited to come to work?” The third question is “what would you be willing to do differently to reach your goals?” The last question is, if you’re having a bad day and not following that shared vision plan, “what should the consequences be?” What Mary Ann says is when she uses this process and pulls that information together, everybody sees themselves in it and the input they’ve had. It’s a unifying process that the team can follow.
You’ve touched on how gratitude can affect daily team interactions. Why do you think so many organizations still don’t show employee gratitude outside of financial compensation? How do you think it can help teams become stronger?
Connors: We still don’t put enough focus on culture in organizations. What I’ve seen as a progression over the years is that the focus in workplaces used to be centered around the individual. There was fitness programs or other programs set up to help people with their health risks, for example.
We’ve moved past that and we’re starting to see more focus on culture. In my interview with Dr. Quinn, he noted that organizations put programs in place instead of focusing on practices such as gratitude — because organizations know how to do programs. They’ve done it for years and it’s the easiest thing to do. He calls us a “checklist society” where you check the program box off and move on. Again, it’s the easiest thing to do, but programs are the least effective.
We have to shift our thinking to understand the importance of culture. I pose a question every single time I do a workshop: think about your best work experience and describe that. Every single time the words are different, but what they end up describing is the culture. What makes people happy and healthy and able to contribute their best is culture.
We need to make a shift towards the practices that will improve culture, and gratitude is one of them. It’s a very simple practice and it can take less time and be more effective than many of the programs we put in place.
For leaders out there who want to stop problem-solving with programs, how can they balance having empathy and understanding along with a productive mindset to perform at a high-level? How do you know when you should be firm with your team and what does that look like from a positive cultural perspective?
Connors: Professor Michael West at Lancaster University is an expert on team effectiveness. He talks a lot about the behaviors associated with compassionate leadership: attending, understanding, empathizing, and supporting. That is the type of leadership that creates a positive environment for people to work in and this actually increases organizational performance. Productivity, performance, creativity, innovation, and engagement are higher in workplaces where there is compassionate leadership.
After doing all this research throughout the U.K., Lancaster University started an offshoot firm for organizational development called Affina Organisation Development (AOD). The firm put all these principles in place and Professor West said it was just a joy to manage. When you follow these principles and this type of leadership, you don’t have as many issues. He said you’ll still have to deal with individuals who behave inappropriately, but it’s a small percentage of people. If you have very clear guidelines and values, it makes those conversations easier.
If you manage your organization based on that inappropriate behavior, which is what a lot of organizations do, you’re focusing on the 5 percent that don’t behave or show up as they should. We’re missing the ball if we focus solely on that small percentage. We really need to be focusing more on that 90-95 percent and creating a culture where people can contribute their best.
In terms of the built environment, are there things about the physical workplace that can encourage or deter a positive and productive culture?
Connors: Everything from the air quality to natural light can impact people’s mood and energy and, of course, those things are going to impact culture. I do think that you need to account for different personalities in the physical workplace as well. Depending on your personality, you may need a different kind of space.
For example, somebody who is very extroverted may work best amongst a lot of people and noise. The trend that we’ve seen over the last decade or so is the introduction of a lot of open concept office spaces, which would work really well for these types of people. Somebody who is more introverted and gets their energy from being alone is going to need a closed door. You need to really understand who your employees are and have a variety of spaces that work for everybody.