How to Improve Work Culture by Putting Action Behind Strategy

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

Culture is the Latin word for cultus, which means care, or growth. If it sounds attractive that’s because it is. Caring for something generally means it will grow. Things are no different when it comes to work culture. 

An increasingly hot topic in today’s age, people seek out compelling descriptions of company cultures in the same way they strive for competitive pay rates and health benefits. Both are significant things to consider in choosing a potential employer. Many people may also see room for improvement within their culture and wonder where to begin. 

So why is work culture important? And if it’s so important, why should it matter and how does one implement it in a way that’s empowering for everyone?

That’s where Daniel Coyle, a seasoned journalist and leadership expert, comes in. Coyle made it his mission to study and understand the world’s top organizations and teams, ultimately posing the question,  “Where does great culture come from? How do you build and nourish it in your group, or strengthen a culture that needs fixing?” From there, his book The Culture Code was born. 

Within his pages, Coyle unlocks the secrets of highly successful groups and provides tangible strategies for leaders on how to create a culture that is not only robust, but sustainable. Any organization or company of any kind or size can tailor Coyle’s tips to fit their needs. Contrary to popular belief, group performance is not determined by intelligence, skill or experience, but by small behaviors that send the message “We are solidly connected.”  

Success, then, is determined by safer and more vulnerable, not smarter, people. This begins with two steps… 

Step 1: Start With Safety

Psychologically speaking, our brains are obsessed with safety on an unconscious level. They’re built to require constant signaling. A mere sense of belonging is not enough. When people stop worrying about potential dangers and shift into connection mode, everyone wins. Examples of belonging cues include close physical proximity; strong eye contact; short, energetic exchanges; laughter; asking lots of questions; engaging the speaker; and small, attentive courtesies. All belonging cues should carry a profound sense of energy, make everyone feel unique and valued, and signal that the relationship will continue. 

Step 2: Get Vulnerable and Stay Vulnerable 

Vulnerability is a clear signal that you have weaknesses and you could use help. Once everyone makes a noticeable effort to set their insecurities aside, get to work, and trust each other, things get done. This means translating connection into trusting cooperation. While often times this feels painful, it generates highly cohesive, trusting behaviors necessary for smooth cooperation. When someone receives a belonging cue, their amygdala begins firing and they feel more inclined to build and maintain social bonds. Ultimately, this transforms the way people relate, feel and behave within their organization and with each other. 

Sure, this all sounds fantastic. But how do you set these strategies in motion?  

Ideas for Action –

  1. Over-Communicate Your Listening: encourage the speaker to keep going, keep your head oriented towards them at all times, be still, avoid interruptions, and be excited for their presentation. They will thrive with your undivided attention. 
  2. Spotlight Fallibility Early On: Open up to your coworkers and show them you make mistakes and invite input with statements like “that’s just my two cents.” 
  3. Overdo Thank-You’s: This creates an atmosphere of tangible gratitude and inspires people to behave more generously. 
  4. Don’t Be Afraid to Eliminate Bad Apples: Always possess a low tolerance for bad behavior and call it out when necessary. 
  5. Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice: Have leaders in place who seek out connection and ensure this standard is being upheld at all times. 
  6. Capitalize on Threshold Moments: Pay attention to the arrival of someone new; pause, take time, and acknowledge the presence of a new person, signaling “We are together now.” 
  7. Avoid Sandwich Feedback: Resist the urge to sandwich negative feedback between two positive pieces of feedback. It often leads to a lack of a clarity and fixation on either negative or positive feedback on the receiver’s part. Instead, ask a person if they want feedback and organically transform the moment into a two-way conversation about learning opportunities and growth. Both parties will benefit from this approach. 
  8. Embrace Fun! Go on walking meetings, hang out outside of work, talk about your hobbies. Need we say more? 

Creating an effective culture often boils down to asking the following question: “What’s really going on here?” A willingness to ask this question uncovers what a company’s true agenda is, what its employees are passionate about, and how they will care for each other on a daily basis. Nobody has all the answers, but there’s immense value in bonding together, combining talents and insights, taking ownership, sharing experiences and mistakes, and having conversations about successes and failures. Naturally, this creates an environment everyone can feel safe in, and thus, thrive in. 

Isn’t that what we all want at the end of the day?

– This article was written by Propel team member Megan Carter

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