An organization’s culture is a lot like an iceberg. The most visible culture of an organisation is at the tip, above the water’s surface. But don’t overlook the invisible day-to-day culture lurking beneath the surface. You’ll need to understand the true depths of your business culture if you want to build a better workplace.

Workplace culture is the sum total of beliefs and attitudes perpetuated throughout an organisation. But it’s also a little more complicated than that, as there are quite a few different moving parts to be aware of. It’s a very broad concept and the outcome of many, many things. So, what is about workplace culture that makes it so poorly understood?

The cultural iceberg analogy demonstrates the difficulties that management experiences. Managers can struggle in assessing the health and well-being of an organisation outside of the standard metrics or KPIs. They tend to rely on aspects of culture which are more clearly visible.

Common misconceptions about what workplace culture

Organizations being separate from their cultures

If you think workplace culture doesn’t reflect on your business, think again. Culture isn’t something you tack on at the end. It’s actually a core part of both the employee and customer experience. So, even if you consider your business to be thoroughly cultureless, it definitely still exists.

Choosing to ignore it won’t get you anywhere. In order to build a better workplace culture, you first have to acknowledge and accept the one you have.

Flashy perks and financial incentives

You want people to work harder, so just give them some Pizza Hut coupons and a performance-based cash bonus, right? Wrong. Evidence shows that while these incentives have some short-term benefit, they can actually cause performance and engagement to deteriorate in the long run. In fact, managerial praise is far more effective.

So you should go out of your way to highlight positive performance if you want the best results. Yep, that’s right, there’s actually a selfish argument for being nice to your staff!

The idea of instant fixes

It might be tempting to look for a magic bullet solution to culture issues. But addressing toxic elements of workplace is rarely so simple. It’s not the sort of thing that can be changed by the discourse of a single meeting. If you really want to create lasting change, you’ll need to analyse employee sentiment. Then you’ll have to create an action plan, and commit whole-heartedly to a new way of doing things.

Fear based management is terrible for workplace culture

Scaring your employees into doing their job is a terrible management tactic. Unfortunately, it seems that some if you didn’t get the memo. And if threatening your employees with disciplinary action is your go-to move, you’re more likely to damage their ability to engage. And resist the urge to blame anyone but yourself for this. If you use fear to lead, it’s entirely your fault because you’ve turned their job stress up to eleven.

The importance of celebrating milestones

Who cares about milestones, you ask? Well, the people who achieve them, for starters. Taking the time to acknowledge your employee’s achievements makes them feel valued. And it also shows their colleagues that hard work does get noticed. According to Deloitte, organisations with recognition programs had an average of 14% higher engagement, productivity and performance than organisations without such initiatives.

You can even get employees to celebrate each other’s achievements by providing a means for them to recognize each other’s accomplishments, such as the recognition-based questions on our employee check-in.

The visible building blocks of workplace culture

Above the surface, several indicators inform us of the visible culture of an organisation through:

  • Goals
  • Strategy
  • Policies
  • Structures
  • Shared values
  • Processes

This is the formal way in which “we say we get things done.” When organizations look to make changes in the way they work, products they sell or strategy they often look at these visible indicators. Data-driven decisions are made from the plethora of MI (Management Information) or HR systems that exist analyzing these indicators.

Official policies for professional conduct

Firstly, there are the rules and protocols which a business expects its employees to abide by. These are generally made clear to new employees as part of on-boarding, and should exist as a written resource. Official workplace policies should cover everything your employees need to know to work for you. Things such as protocol for using communication tools, rules for booking time off, or workplace disciplinary procedures in the event of misconduct.

Company goals and expectations

The long-term goals of a business can significantly affect the sort of workplace culture it has. But equally, if an organization’s workplace culture doesn’t effectively reflect the goals of its leadership, then it will be much harder for that organisation to achieve success. After all, what is workplace culture good for if you have to constantly fight against it to make headway?

The employee experience

The day-to-day experiences of your employees say a lot about your workplace culture. In fact, when all the other bells and whistles are stripped away, employee experiences remain one of your strongest indicators. A good workplace culture should enable employees to excel in their role.

To that end, you need to pay attention to how your managers run their teams. We’ve talked about overarching business objectives. But employees also need their own individual goals as a basis for further feedback and progression. You might think goal-setting is just a glorified to-do list, but it can seriously affect performance.

Too much emphasis on quantity can affect quality, and vice-versa. According to the book Principles of Management by Openstax, SMART Goals can be a great solution to this because they break goals down into manageable sub-tasks.

The people in your organisation

It should go without saying that the people who work in your business have a huge impact on workplace culture. Everybody’s collective dispositions, beliefs and attitudes have some level of impact. That’s true whether you’re a CEO, a manager, or even just a rank-and-file employee.

So, whenever applicants are considered for employment, the discussion partly focuses on whether said applicant would be a “good fit” for the company. Then there’s the issue of diversity in the workplace. Organisations with diverse staff are less likely to get stuck in one mode of thinking. This is useful because your company will then be much more capable of appealing to different demographics.

The invisible building blocks of workplace culture

Beneath the surface are large elements of organisational culture. These describe “the way we actually get things done” such as:

  • Beliefs
  • Perceptions
  • Values
  • Tradition
  • Unwritten rules
  • Stories

Measuring the health of your organisational culture via traditional means like outdated engagement surveys won’t get you far. These staged, intermittent and occasional activities do not engage with the day to day operation of the organisation. Instead, they create additional overheads and inefficiency which often become counterproductive to their original aim. When you give employees a huge stack of mass-produced survey questions, it distracts from their work. If, that is, they don’t just ignore it completely.

Why workplace culture is important for business success

Positive workplace culture is vital for employee engagement, and can therefore have a significant impact on how your business performs. For example, a strong culture of feedback in your organisation can help employees to develop professionally. Some people may be happy to coast, but for many, this is essential for increasing their level of job satisfaction. And while job satisfaction doesn’t necessarily equate to engagement, it’s still a major factor.

Every workplace has its own culture, and many are a grab-bag of positive and negative aspects. So, the ingrained aspects of your organisation’s culture can either help or hinder employee engagement and business development. It may be easy to assume it can’t matter all that much.

But remember what they say about assuming? In truth, a good, supportive culture is essential for getting the most out of your employees, and attracting top talent. After all, what is workplace culture, if not a reflection of the values of its leadership?

What to do to build a better workplace culture

Even if you’re considering this for the first time, your organisation already has some form of culture. Good or bad, the thing about pre-existing workplace cultures is that they can often be very entrenched. This is especially true for businesses with a strong sense of tradition, such as law firms.

So, you want to build a better workplace, and you have an idea of what’s stopping you. But as with any problem worth solving, the answer isn’t simple. In a world where culture evolves and develops over the years, so too must an organisation. Getting your surface level approach in line with behaviors beneath the surface is a great place to start.

The aim of this process should be to break down organisational barriers which exist. These include hierarchy, time, communication or fear of failure and disclosure. It should add real short and long term value to the employee. It should also be tailored to their role, department or individual culture.

Removing formality and increasing employee exposure goes a long way to empowering teams and individuals. That’s because it makes them more likely to generate new ideas and develop a growth culture which is infectious.

1. Workplace culture starts with recruitment and onboarding

It’s easy for new employees to become disengaged if the job doesn’t live up to their expectations. Of course, when you’re recruiting, you need to make your business seem attractive to top talent. But that doesn’t mean it should come at the cost of honesty.

You need to set realistic expectations of what working in your company will be like during recruitment and onboarding. If you can’t do that, you’ll struggle to weed out poor-fit applicants. And at the end of the day, drawn out hiring costs are an expense we’d all rather do without.

2. Effective communication and feedback are essential

Good communication and systems for sharing feedback are two of the most important things to get right when you’re trying to build a better workplace culture. After all, what is workplace culture good for if it doesn’t facilitate personal development and effective collaboration? An open-door policy is all well and good.

But for feedback especially, you need a solid framework in place. Managers and employees reflect on what’s been said when they check in regularly. And our check-ins take 10 minutes tops. That way, you never have to worry about disrupting employee schedules.

3. What to do if burnout is rewarded in your workplace culture

There was a time when your average worker did sixty hours a day, six days a week. Thankfully, people aren’t expected to have their nose to the grindstone quite that much these days. But, even though things have improved, the “work til you drop” mentality unfortunately does still exist in some workplaces.

In 2019, surveyed HR leaders reported that burnout accounted for as much as half of their employee turnover. Improving workplace culture means addressing burnout in your organisation. As much as you may wish to pretend otherwise, everyone has a limit to how much stress they can handle. And it’s an inescapable fact that regularly pushing people past their limits just isn’t sustainable.

4. Use teamwork to build resilience

Touching again on the importance of social wellbeing, it’s important to build connections between members of your team. This is because, ultimately, it’s our friends and colleagues at work who support us, and help us to stay resilient in the face of stress.

5. Lead change from the top down

People often look at sudden change with suspicion. And without employee buy-in, you’ll struggle to bring about any real, lasting change to your workplace culture. But employees tend to look to the business’s leadership for cues on how to act. So, when you introduce a new tool or way of doing things, it’s vital that you openly use it and highlight the benefits, so that everyone else will follow your lead.

HR tech that helps you build a better workplace

The best way to build a better workplace is through a modern employee engagement platform. And it all starts with listening to your people through a structured feedback framework. Zensai can help you reach beneath the surface of your organisational iceberg. And beyond that, it will help replace outdated engagement and goal setting processes with one simple, easy to adopt process.

We recommend this process to include a mixture of open and closed questions. Just as importantly, managers must be able to tailor them to their team and employees. One essential element is to include a means for feedback and promotion of good work. In other words, you need to enable peer and senior management recognition.

To increase organisational transparency, employees should be encouraged to report risks and issues as soon as they identify them. Providing a regular and simple means to do so ensures they don’t get forgotten or lost in an email inbox.

These approaches allow employees to disclose information and allow a culture to align and develop across the organisation.

Want to see how we can help you turn company culture around?