Creating a positive workplace culture is not just about dishing out higher salaries or bonuses and giving away free snacks. It’s about creating an environment in which employees feel that they are valued.

In the previous posts, I talked about how the true measure and definition of culture is what the people who work in the workplace actually experience on the ground, day to day, and whether the actual experience of the culture matches with the description of culture from the leadership.

In this post, I'm going to talk about what you can do to close the gap between how culture is described and how it is experienced, and how to make a lasting and effective culture change, regardless of your position. It all comes down to accountability.

Below are some tips for building in cultural accountability.

Only Promise What You Can Implement

For workplace leaders and those who define and set the culture, it's important to make sure that the policies and practices that are promoted as part of the culture are actually feasible to implement. For example, if you want to be a workplace that invests in employees’ professional development, you need to have resources and processes to make this happen. This can mean budgeting a certain amount for each person to attend conferences, bringing in outside experts to provide training to employees, or creating a forum for employees to deliver workshops and presentations to each other, just to give a few examples. But failure on part of the company to provide any formal structure to deliver on culture promises will make the whole notion of culture seem disingenuous, and result in distrust and low morale.

Build Culture Into Performance Expectations...for Everyone

To maintain a positive and healthy culture, everyone needs to trust that they are working in a fair and transparent system. To do this, the behaviors that exemplify the culture need to be included in all position descriptions and part of the performance review process for everyone, from the highest leadership on down. A surefire way to turn a workplace culture toxic is holding different people up to different standards, or even having the perception of doing so.

As John Amaechi said on a recent episode of Adam Grant's *Work Life* podcast, "culture is defined by the worst behavior tolerated." In order to have a positive and healthy culture, each individual needs to trust that everyone else is on board with the culture, and see that people whose behavior doesn't promote the culture will face appropriate consequences. For example, if a company holds itself up as having an inclusive culture, it can't overlook a CEO who had a habit of telling sexist jokes. The company would need to have mechanisms to make sure 1) people feel comfortable calling out bad behavior, 2) there is a process to help people atone for or improve their behavior, and 3) anyone who repeatedly fails to uphold company culture is fired.

Value Continuous Improvement

While the culture should make clear what practices and behaviors will and will not be tolerated in a workplace, a healthy culture is one that sets all employees up to succeed. This means starting with an open acknowledgment that no one is expected to be perfect and it's everyone's job to help everyone else to grow. Here are some examples of how to do this:

  • Encourage and empower everyone, regardless of their role, to provide and accept constructive feedback. This may mean offering regular training or resources on constructive feedback and ensuring that managers are regularly soliciting feedback from the people they supervise.

  • Avoid blaming or punishing people when errors occur. Treat mistakes as a learning experience and opportunity to teach new skills or emphasize accountability by collectively creating a plan to correct the issue and prevent it from happening again. Mistakes are just that, mistakes; they are not intentional and should not be used to hang over someone’s head. It’s likely that whoever made the mistake is already beating him/her-self up and won't benefit from the added blame.

  • Ensure managers make time for regular check-ins with supervisors and opportunities for peer feedback. Employees love to know when they’ve done something well or seek advice on how to improve.

Creating a positive office culture does not have to be expensive or complicated. By making small, concerted changes you can greatly improve employee engagement and the overall productivity of your business. Otherwise, change is impossible.

Have you ever started a job at a company you were really excited to go work for, only to be disappointed by the reality of actually working there?

How can you tell what the culture really is?

The true measure of workplace culture is not the formal definition written in the mission statement, operations manual, or employee handbook. Nor is it the upbeat description told to candidates during job interviews or reflected on the company website.

The truest measure of a workplace culture is how the culture is experienced by the people who actually work there, who can attest to how well idealized written conception of culture aligns with the on-the-ground reality.

When the ideal and actual cultures closely align, you get happier, more engaged, and more committed teams.

When the ideal and actual are mismatched, you're in for trouble. In fact, the experience of working in a company that sees itself as having (or at least publicly claims to have) a great culture but is actually has a pretty toxic place to work can be even more upsetting and cause more damage than working in a company that doesn't even try to take culture seriously.

When the Reality Doesn't Match the Ideal

Let's look at an example.

Right now there is a lot of discussion about how to build diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace cultures, with companies trying to address systemic biases and barriers (both intentional and unintentional). Many companies are updating their mission and vision statements to add language about inclusion, offering all-staff workshops on unconscious bias, and changing hiring practices to attract candidates from different backgrounds. These are all examples of adding positive features to the culture so the company can go better going forward.

Adding positive features can certainly be effective, but for people who already work in the company and have witnessed (and may continue to witness) discrimination or offensive behavior, their experience working for the company is largely tainted by the existing negative features.

  • Males frequently talking over their female colleagues during meetings.

  • Employees who don't have children regularly having to work late in order to meet deadlines after their parent colleagues sign off for the day

  • Black employees having to cringe silently when someone makes a racist joke

In order to have a healthy, inclusive, progressive workplace culture, a company must take proactive steps to stomp out the negative features. Until they do, any efforts to change culture will ring hollow.

"Culture is Defined by the Worst Behavior Tolerated"

This provocative, but ultimately correct statement was made by John Amaechi, a guest on a recent episode of Adam Grant's *Work Life* podcast, and it perfectly explains why the employees' lived experience working in a company is the most important measure of culture.

Until employees see consequences for people who do or say things that run counter to the ideal, written company culture, they won't believe that efforts to improve culture are genuine or that change is possible. And this applies equally to serious offenses (like racist comments or managers who play favorites) and smaller offenses (leaving dirty mugs in the office kitchen or one co-worker dumping an unexpected last-minute assignment on another) alike.

Every company wants to think of itself as a great place to work, with happily engaged employees who always give their all to make sure clients and customers are 100% satisfied.

For the last decade, the term culture has been misused as a way for companies to define their vision of the values and social norms that govern the work environment. A lot of work, and heaps of great concepts, go into defining the culture in earnest, but less work goes into making sure the stated culture is actually in practice. This is because operationalizing the culture is much harder than defining it.

We often think about culture as the features (expectations, policies, and practices) a workplace has or encourages that define the working environment, such as a lenient policy allowing staff to work from home when needed, a well-stocked office kitchen with free coffee and snacks for everyone, or a budget for individual professional development so people can build new skills.

We're less likely to think about the flip side - what expectations are not made explicit or what practices are discouraged - as contributors to culture, which is understandable because it's easier to think about adding positive features than it is to think about removing negative features. But I'd argue that to improve workplace culture so that everyone experiences a positive change, it's more effective to get rid of harmful practices first.

In other words, you have to stop doing "bad" before you can start doing "good"!

In the next two posts, I'm going to dig deeper into how to understand your workplace culture and steps to take if you are serious about making meaningful, lasting improvements.