Sarah was enthusiastic as she started her first management role. When first offered the job, Sarah was warned regarding her new reports. They’d had a rough time with the previous manager and many were now despondent, disengaged, and actively looking towards the exits.
Being young and inexperienced, Sarah brushed off these concerns. Surely the departmental culture couldn’t be that bad! Sarah was sure that once the staff met her, they’d understand that it was a new beginning in the office and the dawn of a new, more positive era.
Her optimism was misplaced. While her staff would eventually recover from the negative company culture of her predecessor, it was going to take a lot more than a few kind words and a cheerful smile to change things. Sarah was about to get a crash course in how to enact real, positive culture change during a management transition.
Positive Company Culture, Positive Results
Sarah had good reason for wanting to create a positive company culture in her new department. Culture influences every aspect of the workplace, so it’s worth the time and effort to create a supportive, friendly, and service-oriented atmosphere. According to research, a positive culture isn’t just easier on the manager; it’s also good for the employees.
Harvard Business Review states that positive cultures make employees healthier, less likely to call in sick, and less likely to injure themselves on the job. Employees working in a positive culture are also more engaged, less likely to leave, and more productive.
Sarah understood this, so she started her first day in her new role with a group meeting and a speech to set the tone for the office. “I’m excited to be here,” she said. “You’re a great, talented group of people and I can’t wait to help you succeed.” There was a smattering of polite applause and smiles. Sarah assumed she’d done enough, buckled down, and got to work.
However, Sarah made a common mistake. While words are important, they’re not enough to enact real change. To truly change your workplace, you need action. Since Sarah had come into a difficult situation and a damaged company culture, she needed to show empathy, be social, go out of her way to help others, and listen well. Sarah knew how to do these things. She was a good friend and a valued member of her team. However, in her new role, she underestimated how much positive office culture depends on creating a community in-house. Since her predecessor had fostered a culture of negativity in the office, her employees no longer had a sense of comradery.
Small Talk and Small Gestures
About two weeks after starting her new job, Sarah’s boss stopped by to talk about her performance. She’d had a few complaints about Sarah’s demeanor. Employees complained that she was cold, distant, and a bit too much like a robot in her interactions. While they preferred this to her predecessor’s predilection towards tantrums, they still felt alienated and disengaged. Sarah explained that she tended to be very focused on results, and that her emails reflected the same.
Meanwhile, she faced constant interruptions due to staff complaints and infighting. Her employees dealt with conflict by assigning blame and rushing to ‘get their side out there’ before the other person did. As a result, Sarah faced a constant string of small crises that seemed childish and pointless. In reality, they were an outgrowth of the previous manager’s style, which tended to play employees off each other and magnify small disagreements into epic rivalries.
Sarah’s supervisor recommended more personal contact, so Sarah began to spend a few moments each morning walking around the cubicles and engaging in small talk. She made a conscious effort to inquire about how family members were doing and scheduled a regular Friday afternoon ‘Happy Hour’ with refreshments so the team could talk in a low-pressure environment.
Soon, Sarah began to see progress. The office culture was less hostile than it had been, but her employees were still wary of building connections with her and with each other. They’d gotten too used to a competitive, winner-takes-all culture, and they didn’t feel safe trusting each other.
It Never Hurts to Help
As a new manager, the best way to create a positive culture change is by demonstrating positive, supportive behaviors to your staff. Studies have found that this creates a ‘pay it forward’ effect. As you go out of your way to help people, they’ll begin to help each other. A servant-leader creates a culture of mutual support and assistance.
Sarah got a chance to put this theory into practice one morning when Rupert came into her office to complain about Amanda. “Her reports are awful,” Rupert said. “She barely knows how to use the spreadsheet program. You should fire her and hire someone competent.”
Amanda and Rupert had been coworkers for years, but the former style of management gave Rupert an incentive to disparage her to the new manager, rather than offering to help. Sarah thanked Rupert for his input, but instead of reprimanding Amanda, she offered guidance. After some one-on-one mentoring, Sarah typed up a quick guide to the most useful tricks for reports. The guide helped Amanda improve her work and also provided a useful training tool as new staff came on board.
Again and again, Sarah took on the role of helper and mentor rather than disciplinarian, as the old manager had. Each time she responded to complaints with support and instruction, her staff had to recalibrate their expectations for a manager. Slowly, they realized that Sarah placed a high value on constructive criticism and learning opportunities. They started extending the same courtesies to each other that Sarah offered to them.
Accentuate the Positive
Sarah’s experiences are not unique. Many managers see a need to develop a positive company culture when accepting a new role. As a manager, you can also make concrete changes and encourage a positive culture with your actions when you:
Create a family atmosphere: Never underestimate the power of food, small talk, and social time. Give your employees a chance to get to know each other as they share a meal, even if it’s something as simple as coffee and bagels on Friday mornings. Encourage them to learn about each other’s personal lives. If someone is dealing with a major illness, a new baby, or some other life event, encourage them to share updates so that others can send them good thoughts and help.
Model compassion and kindness: This can be as simple as listening and offering condolences, or as complex as organizing meals for a sick coworker. The key is to show your staff how to serve each other and how to create a culture of mutual support in and out of the office.
Show mercy and forgive mistakes: Offering mercy and forgiveness doesn’t mean overlooking poor performance, but it means giving people concrete feedback and the information that they need to improve. As a leader, you are also a teacher and a mentor. Take these roles seriously and encourage your staff to mentor each other.
Give employees meaningful work and projects: People feel more positive about their work when they know that it has meaning to the company as a whole. Explain why you’re assigning a certain project and how it fits into the larger scheme. Give your staff chances to prove themselves and learn new skills, so they see that you value them as professionals, not drudges.
Demonstrate respect, transparency, and honesty in all your interactions: Secrets and lies can quickly destroy an office culture. Be open and honest about what’s going on so that your employees can trust you and each other.
When you act as a servant-leader who puts your employees’ needs ahead of your own, they learn to serve each other. As more and more people adopt an attitude based on the importance of service and support, you’ll see a more positive culture begin to thrive.
Six Months Later
Within half a year, the positive reigned in Sarah’s office. One Monday morning, Amanda went to pour herself a cup of coffee but discovered that the pot was empty. Instead of trying to find the culprit, she simply made a fresh pot. Randall had a problem with Gene’s last report, but instead of complaining to Sarah, he talked to Gene and showed him how to correct it. Jennifer went from cubicle to cubicle organizing a meal schedule for Amanda’s upcoming surgery. It had become the norm for coworkers to help each other when they had personal struggles. The new lack of drama left Sarah free to focus on big issues like helping people learn new skills and improve their careers. Suddenly, her job was less about acting as a referee for employee disputes and more about removing roadblocks to her employees’ success.
When Sarah began her pursuit of a positive culture, she wasn’t an experienced manager and she didn’t have some special knack for the role. What she did have was a willingness to work hard and take concrete steps to create a positive culture in her new office. You don’t have to be a born leader to inspire people, help people, and create a community that works towards a single goal. You just have to be willing to demonstrate the values you want your employees to hold.
Leadership, like any skill, needs to be developed and nurtured. At Applied Vision Works, our leadership development coaches can help you recognize your strengths as a leader and help you to bring them out in a tangible way that brightens up your workplace. Having an objective perspective from a coach can help you enact the leadership style that you envision for yourself and your team. Contact us today to learn more about building a positive culture at your workplace.
To read more about bringing change into your business, see “Why Lasting Change Must Come From Within” by Ronell Smith.