Jun 06 2017| Leadership | Values

Developing a Positive Workplace Culture is a Leadership Challenge

A positive workplace culture is crucial for success

by Peter Woodward Associate

Maintaining and developing a positive workplace culture is a leadership challenge


Workplace cultures don’t stand still, so the question is are you leaving it to fate or do you see your organisation’s culture as an opportunity to develop and make positive changes to the business?

A famous passage in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland illustrates this thinking beautifully:


Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don't much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.

Alice: So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.


The message is clear - culture will happen to your organisation, but will you end up in a place you want to?


Research over many years has evidenced that organisations with a positive organisational culture are often seen as ‘employers of choice’ for high calibre employees.


As a starting point for that, we can consider Stephen Covey’s advice in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He says: ‘Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.’


A positive work culture is also often seen to enhance good and effective working relationships with both clients and suppliers.


 Some of the touchstones of positive workplace culture include:


  • Employees typically have clarity of purpose, understanding how their role supports the organisational objectives;


  • They will have clear measures of success across a variety of different markers;


  • In a healthy environment, mutual expectations between employees and their leaders are typically ‘felt fair’, and the work environment is harmonious and productive;


  • Open and regular communication is encouraged throughout the organisation;


  • Teams do function as teams;


  • Positive organisational values and ethical standards are embedded in the way the organisation conducts itself.


Clearly, workplace cultures are truly multi-faceted and the mindset and processes need to be considered by their leaders, yet there is no single way to approach the development of a workplace culture. Using three examples of international tech companies - Intel, IBM and Google - we can see that there are many routes to take. When I worked with Intel, they had very well defined values, but the challenge was to find out how well their managers and employees were living the values in their daily working lives.


IBM hit an existential crisis at the turn of the century and realised their founding values were no longer relevant. In 2003 they conducted a 72-hour, global ‘values jam’ and asked the whole company to give their input, and the values and subsequent culture are alive and well today.


Google, famous for its workplace culture, needed to find out if its managers were adding value and how they could incorporate the role of managers with their desire to have a flat structure. Google engaged Harvard University to deliver Project Oxygen and create eight key behaviours that they believed would lead to great management. These are values driven and still in use today. Examples include:


  • Be a good coach.
  • Empower; don't micromanage.
  • Be interested in direct reports’ success and wellbeing.
  • Don't be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented.


Importantly, the culture and values must be measured and continually reviewed to ensure they are enacted. Regular audits of workplace culture alone are not sufficient; leaders should use such feedback to implement positive changes and then monitor their effectiveness.


As you’d expect, Steve Jobs of Apple observed the importance of not letting culture happen to you, although he admits that is exactly what Apple did in the beginning: ‘In our early years, we didn’t talk about culture much. We hadn’t documented it at all. We just built a business that we wanted to work in. And that was great. But the real return on culture happened when we started getting more deliberate about it. By writing it down. By debating it. By taking it apart, polishing the pieces and putting it all back together. Iterating. Again. And again.’


A positive workplace culture is truly authentic. You have to walk the talk. But in today’s world, we know that consumers are dropping or avoiding brands whose values they do not like or admire. Conversely, we know that shoppers will buy a brand specifically because they like its values and the company culture it projects.


Authenticity is vital; we need to mean what we say and say what we mean in all our engagements with our workforce. This, in turn, will communicate itself to the client/customer base.


A study by Harvard Business Review in 2013 stated that Leaders should aspire to a ‘DREAMS’ culture and turn it into reality by following these six guiding principles:


Difference – ‘I want to work in a place where I can be myself.’

Radical honesty – ‘I want to know what’s really going on.’

Extra value – ‘I want to work in an organisation that makes me more valuable.’

Authenticity – ‘I want to work in an organisation that truly stands for something.’

Meaning – ‘I want my day-to-day work to be meaningful.’

Simple rules – ‘I do not want to be hindered by stupid rules.’


Looking at these ‘rules’ it seems obvious that they will create a positive workplace culture, and that their converse would result in a less than healthy and productive organisation.


So, I return to my theme, do you view your workplace culture as fate, something that just happens, or do you want to rise to this leadership challenge and take your workplace culture to a better place?


Failure to take this leadership challenge is often to accept ‘second best’; if the work culture is seen as fate or ‘just the sea we swim in’ then a very significant developmental opportunity has been missed.


The third Leaders Nexus Breakfast was presented by Peter Woodward who delved into his 45 years of experience in working with tech companies, multinationals, finance companies and startups to share his knowledge of workplace cultures.


Leaders Consultancy is dedicated to supporting organisations which wish to develop or enhance the work culture.


For more information about Leaders or to enquire about future Nexus events, please contact Phil Eyre on phil@leadersconsultancy.co.uk 07781 169611.

About The Author | Peter Woodward

Peter Woodward worked for 27 years in the “high technology” industry, first with Texas Instruments and then Intel Corporation. After spending nine years in a wide range of manufacturing and production planning roles he moved into human resources. Peter’s roles at Intel included European Human Resource Director, and Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA) Training Director. He played a key role in developing and delivering a range of advanced and sophisticated training programmes to more than 3500 Intel managers worldwide, with particular focus on the Pentium design, production teams and marketing teams. On leaving Intel, Peter moved into an independent consulting role and has undertaken a wide variety of briefs/projects including being a member of a “transfer of western management practices” consulting team for joint Chinese French (EDF) development of a Nuclear Energy Centre in Beijing; and was appointed as lead HR consultant during a major change initiative with the Abbey National International Bank. Peter’s expertise also includes using psychometric tools to advance leadership; 360 survey activities; employment and discrimination tribunals and systems for effective objective-setting. He also advises start-up technology companies with board-level experience.

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