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How to Create a Positive Culture in the Workplace

Written By: Mary-Devon Dupuy

Culture has to happen organically, whether it’s in a city’s streets or its offices. Human resources departments focus a lot on how to create a positive work culture for their employees, and HR policies alone can do a lot to shape professional environments. However, a lot of creating a positive work culture has to do with the people who are working, and their values, goals, and communication styles have to come together in a way that encourages growth and cooperation, rather than unhealthy competition and division. Unsurprisingly, it’s the people at the top of the ladder that have the most power when it comes to setting a tone for their companies. Honesty, straightforwardness, and mutual respect are a few traits that bosses who have fostered a positive workplace culture all have in common. Let’s explore how to create a positive culture in the workplace.

What is workplace culture and what does it mean?

According to SHRM, the idea of professional culture emerged in the 1980’s, and has cemented itself as an important predictor of a company’s outcome. Company culture is a lot like geographical culture, minus a lot of the food and dancing. As Christina Folz puts it, “Culture is considered a potential competitive advantage by 82 percent of more than 7,000 CEOs and HR leaders from 130 countries, according to the Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report. Yet only 28 percent of the Deloitte survey respondents believe they understand their culture well, and only 19 percent believe they have the “right culture.”

The crux of the message is that often professional culture tends to be sacrificed for financial gains, which ultimately leads to failure on both fronts. There are examples of this at every level of the economy, from small mom n’ pop stores with low wages that produce high turnover, to multi-national corporations losing everything by lying to their investors. Ultimately, the individuals with the power of the purse dictate the culture of their companies. As with every other aspect of life, balance is critical.

Western media tends to glorify ruthless CEOs, but there is a lot of evidence that suggests it pays to be nice. Well, at least nice enough. There’s an emotional detachment that has to take place for any work to get done. Parents may have to work through their kids having the flu, or push the boundaries of a 9-5 schedule when a deadline needs to be met. But actively making employees feel like they are under the gun may not encourage them to be the most productive. In fact, brute force leadership styles may do the exact opposite. According to the Harvard Business Review, employee stress is directly connected to high turnover, as well as high healthcare costs.   

Human resources professionals, as well as supervisors, should never bite their tongues when it comes to criticism. Common sense tells us that problems need to be addressed to be changed. However, there are problems that could be avoided entirely. For instance, proactively improving mental health in the workplace is one of the many ways that managers can foster an environment of open communications in which problems get addressed much more often than swept under the rug.

Another avoidable problem is childcare. We briefly touched on the struggles of being a working parent, and the most universal one of those struggles is the price of childcare. As of 2017, the national cost of in-center child care was $8,589 per child (SHRM, via Harvard Business Review). National household income averages hover around $50,000 a year, meaning childcare alone eats up almost 20 percent of most parents’ combined salaries. It’s actually cheaper for many families to have one parent stay at home with their child/children, a familial model once only associated with upper-middle class lifestyles. All of this is to say that if your company values positive culture and can afford on-site childcare, it makes economic sense to provide it.

How to change the culture of a workplace

The term “diversity” has a strong racial and ethnic connotation, but it also includes parental status, gender, religion, sexuality, and myriad other factors. Creating a positive culture in the workplace means considering not only who’s applying, but how to attract and maintain a truly diverse workforce.

All of the advice so far has been about how to foster positive workplaces starting fresh, and not focused on undoing past wrongs. But it’s never too late to take ownership for your mistakes as an executive, manager, or even a human resources professional. Even defenders of the “mean boss” agree — taking ownership and being accountable is always a must. A lack of accountability is the turning point that makes a “tough” boss look like an unstable bully.

Creating a positive workplace culture

The obvious signs of negative workplace culture is high turnover, infighting, gossiping, and dissatisfied clients and/or investors. Pouring money into feel-good stuff like childcare and staff retreats when your company is hurting financially is counter-intuitive, but team building is necessary for growth and productivity. If your company culture needs fixing, the first step is to gather feedback from your team. Once everyone’s pain points have been acknowledged, it’s possible to start repairing past wrongs. And so we’ve come full circle — start with honesty, straightforwardness, and mutual respect for your employees’ values, goals, and communication styles and the rest will work itself out.

Mary-Devon Dupuy is First Impression Liason for Acrew and a local comedian in New Orleans.

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