To Make America Great Again Let’s Fix Our Toxic Workplaces

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Detail from “Evening Red” — painting by artist Frank Baker Holmes

“The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Gallup polls have shown that barely one-third of Americans are engaged with their work. In another independent poll, the TinyPulse engagement and culture report, only 21% of employees feel themselves strongly valued at work. In other words, American worker dissatisfaction is pervasive with the result that our production is failing to reach its true potential.

Research indicates that happy employees deliver 31% higher productivity, demonstrate 3 times higher creativity on the job, are ten times more engaged by their jobs, and generate 37% greater sales numbers. If these stats are accurate, what are we going to do about it?

It’s hard for some people to imagine, but work can be fun. Plenty of books have been written explaining that an attitude adjustment is the way to workplace happiness. “You may not be able to control what’s happening, but you can control your response to it,” we’re told.

Personally, I think that’s an oversimplification. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the wrong place, being a square peg in a round hole. Or perhaps an irregular-shaped peg in a very confining square hole.

On the other hand, a lot of job dissatisfaction has to do with the culture. After reading several articles citing dismal numbers pertaining to job satisfaction, I reached out to Chris Edmonds, author of The Culture Engine, to learn more about what both leaders and employees can do productively address the problem. Mr. Edmonds is a consultant whose focus is on helping senior management create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures.

EN: The numbers you cite regarding productivity, creativity and job satisfaction all have the appearance of veracity. Can you cite the studies these findings come from?

Chris Edmonds: The “appearance of veracity.” Love it. These numbers are legit — head here for citations: Driving Results Through Culture: 21Days To Better Well-Being. These being from 2012, I use more recent data today. Gallup’s daily engagement dashboard shows engagement at 34% in the US. That number hasn’t changed significantly in 20 years; that’s depressing. TinyPulse’s 2014 engagement and culture report noted that only 21% of employees feel strongly valued at work. Our workplaces suck.

EN: What are some examples of things management does that lead to this kind of toxic corporate culture or company decline?

CE: If leaders only reward results, people will behave badly in pursuit of those results. If leaders treat others badly — by demeaning, discounting, and/or dismissing their ideas, efforts, and accomplishments — colleagues will treat peers badly, too. That reduces employee engagement, customer service, and results — citation: http://drtc.me/proof . Most leaders spend more time and energy on their team or company’s products and services than they do to its culture, even though culture drives everything that happens in their organization, for better or worse.

EN: When a culture is toxic, it didn’t happen overnight. What are the early signs that there is trouble up ahead?

CE: Early signs of an unhealthy culture include turnover of talented, engaged employees, customer service issues, reduced quality, reduced output, conflicts and drama in the workplace, and the absence of proactive problem solving. Glassdoor.com is a fabulous source of employee perceptions about their companies and their organization’s leadership — people don’t hold back when things suck. Again, there are far more lousy workplaces than there are decent ones.

EN: Can you cite examples of companies that are doing it right? (Pixar comes to mind, if Creativity Inc. is accurate.)

CE: There are a number of companies that have crafted and maintained a purposeful, positive, productive work culture. WD40 Companies, Ritz-Carlton, and Starbucks are well-known. Pixar does it well. Lesser known organizations like Luck Companies, Assurance, and Madwire are exceptional. A few companies have experienced some burps — Southwest Airlines comes to mind — but, overall, are doing culture very well.

EN: Isn’t it true that troubled times for companies can become opportunities for champions. How can one tell if the situation can be fixed or if it is irreparable?

CE: Any lousy culture can be repaired. It’s not about white knights riding in to save the day! It’s about senior leaders making values — how people treat each other — as important as results. Only when senior leaders measure, monitor, and reward civil (or, God forbid, validating) behavior DAILY — equally so as they do measuring, monitoring, and rewarding results — will their culture shift and become healthy, fun, and innovative. To answer the question about “fixable or irreparable,” I look at the willingness of the senior leadership team to 1) understand their primary responsibility to drive the quality of their culture and 2) their discipline to define their desired culture (through an organizational constitution), model their defined servant purpose, values and behaviors, then align all plans, decisions, and actions to that organizational constitution. If those senior leaders embrace that responsibility and are willing to embrace the discipline of values alignment, I can help them craft a purposeful, positive, productive work culture.

EN: How can an unhappy employee discern whether the problem is themselves or the culture? What steps can employees take to improve a company’s health? Or is this a futile endeavor if the management is unaware?

CE: Culture drives everything that happens in organizations — and senior leaders (mostly unknowingly) drive the culture. Are some humans unsuited to work in an office or plant or wherever, because of their personalities, preferences, or quirks? (We all have these oddities.) Sure, some humans may “be the problem” when they don’t fit into the work culture. That’s not the norm, though. 95% of the time — in my experience and research — the culture is driving behaviors, explicitly and implicitly. If an employee is unhappy, it’s likely the culture that’s creating that dynamic. The question for that individual employee is, “can I buck up and fit in here?” Maybe — and plenty of humans do that bucking up, daily, in workplaces around the globe. The issue is that it’s not going to get better. That sacrifice — of the employee’s values, principles, etc. — will never go away. If that unhappy employee is lucky enough to be in a company where senior leaders “show up” and decide to create a healthy culture, there is hope for that employee. For the most part, I coach employees to seek out a work environment that aligns with their personal servant purpose, values and behaviors, and skills. That’ll lead to greater happiness quicker.

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To learn more, read Chris Edmond’s The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace

To see additional paintings by Frank Holmes follow this link.

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