Workplace culture: It’s everybody’s responsibility

20 September 2022

Colin D Ellis

Colin has over 20 years' experience of building and leading teams in both the private and public sectors. He is the is author of The Hybrid Handbook & actively helps organisations around the world to transform their working cultures.

As Colin D Ellis explains, any team or organisation can have a vibrant culture if they are prepared to invest in its definition and then work hard with each other to maintain it.

One of the things that always baffled me in my early working days in the 1980s and 1990s, was the notion that how an organisation operated was the sole responsibility of managers. Of course, my youth and inexperience probably contributed to the confusion, but still I would often ask myself: “We’re doing the work, yet they’re telling us how we should be doing it.”

It wasn’t until towards the end of the 1990s and my first real managerial role that I was able to implement my own approach and as a team, we reaped the benefits of it. We took the time to define how we would work together. The things we would do, wouldn’t do and the steps we’d take to retain our sense of belonging. We hit plenty of speed bumps on the way, yet we retained our sense of purpose and our work flourished.

It’s actually not that hard to do, yet most teams and organisations struggle to get started.

Culture – by definition – is ‘the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society’. In a work context, then a team represents ‘particular people’. Therefore, everyone within a team is responsible for getting to know each other, agreeing the behaviours, ways of working together, generation of new ideas, and achievement of results.

This is still chronically misunderstood at many organisations that still see culture ‘belonging’ to the senior management team or HR. These are often the same people who refuse to spend time and money on defining and building a culture, yet talk about it being the ‘most important thing’ almost in the same breath.

Two essential elements are required to build a vibrant workplace culture: emotionally intelligent people, and a high-level of engagement. On paper, these look like relatively straight-forward things to achieve, yet the reality is quite different.

Emotional intelligence

The importance of emotional intelligence has been downplayed for far too long. Daniel Goleman brought its importance to the fore in 1995 and the world has been playing catch-up ever since.

There are still many organisations that promote people based on technical excellence or length of tenure, rather than whether they have the human skills to inspire and motivate others to do great work.

Of course, people still require the technical skills to be successful, however, emotionally intelligent individuals understand this and work hard to stay relevant in an ever-changing world.

At its most basic level, emotional intelligence is about understanding yourself. Your personality and skill strengths, your opportunities for improvement, and what you feel right now. When you’re able to understand these feelings and moderate your actions accordingly – with no loss of motivation, commitment or passion – then you will become a positive role model for others.

When the entire team is able to behave this way, then you have the recipe for building and maintaining great workplace culture. As a group of people, you are able to reject those who are looking to destroy the culture through their behaviour or performance.

Engagement

But having a group of emotionally intelligent employees isn’t enough. Indeed, I worked with a team of 30 people a couple of months ago who were all lovely. Full of empathy, understanding and compassion for each other. They just didn’t really understand what their collective vision was, let alone how their work connected to the success of the organisation. As a result, they had a pleasant culture that regularly missed its targets.

Engagement is achieved when people and teams are committed to working together to achieve a set of goals. This means understanding the vision and the strategic intent the organisation has, and how that relates to the work they are doing. When teams and departments understand this, they are able to define the cultural conditions required to get there and are twice as likely to be engaged in the work that they do.

Priorities need to be regularly assessed for relevance and time made for people to challenge and innovate.

Targets need to be stretched, but still achievable and set at the team level, not individual. This encourages connection, collaboration and creativity, and builds a sense of one-ness and belonging that keeps people together, even during stressful times.

Highly emotionally intelligent staff who are highly engaged in their work are respectful towards each other and push each other to achieve the goals they have. They celebrate the small wins, interact socially, and reject the behaviours of those who seek to hold them back.

They see failure as a learning opportunity, continually challenge inefficient ways of working, and work hard to keep their skills and their culture fresh.

A vibrant culture

Any team or organisation can have a vibrant culture if they are prepared to invest in its definition and then work hard with each other to maintain it. All too often, however, culture falls into the ‘too hard’ basket or else quick-fix solutions are applied to try to change it. Of course, programs that address issues, such as diversity and inclusion, technical skills gaps, working environment and process refresh, are all important, but they pale into comparison against human behaviour and how connected people feel to their work.

When these programs fail to provide the expected lift in productivity or engagement, managers revert to telling people how they should behave or feel, and all motivation is lost.

Culture is the sum of everyone’s behaviours, skills, attitudes, ideas, beliefs, stories and traditions. Therefore, it’s only when everyone is involved in defining and upholding it that it can ever be vibrant and when that happens, then the results are fantastic.

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