The Human Element
The instinct of self-preservation runs strong and deep. When a person’s brain identifies a risk, consciously or not, it distracts from their ability to do their best work. Thus, at its essence, a positive culture is one where people feel safe.
It may sound counterintuitive, but a safe environment promotes ambitious work. Consider, would you be more likely to try something risky (like walking a tightrope) with or without a safety net?
A positive culture provides the mental and practical support necessary to push oneself.
The Business Obligation
As managers we have an obligation to cultivate a culture that will help the business achieve its goals.
Our company may already have a set of noble values. They can probably be found memorialized on office walls and corporate handbooks. But culture can’t be printed into existence. Culture lives and dies by how people behave.
Therefore, our obligation is to behave in a way that promotes the growth of a culture where people feel safe to do their best work.
A Humane Approach
If I had to distill the task of creating a safe environment down to one word, that word would be Trust.
What follows are some key areas where we can promote trust. For maximum effect, we need to consistently practice these ourselves and also develop them in our team.
You can approach these as mental tricks, however, that is not recommended. Many people are quite alert to insincerity and, once detected, will raise a mental alarm which renders the ruse a waste.
Culture hinges on honesty. Trust cannot exist in an environment of dishonesty. We set the expectation of telling the truth by setting an example.
I sometimes see people confuse honesty for full transparency. This is a mistake. There are many legitimate scenarios where information (personal, legal, confidential) needs to be kept private. If an explanation is requested on such a topic, it is usually best to keep it brief. As an example, I might honestly say: I don’t have any information to share on that.
Second only to honesty is respect. When people don’t feel respected, they don’t feel safe. They keep their guard up.
Respect is communicated by what we say and how we say it. It’s on display in our body language and facial expressions. It is demonstrated by active listening and genuinely considering the ideas and viewpoints of others. It means we don’t talk behind others backs.
Respect helps you to work well with people of different backgrounds and views.
I once worked with a COO who included in company job listings this line:
“If you are smarter than everyone else, the absolute smartest person you know – as in you win every argument because you are so smart and no problem cannot be solved by a quick application of your smarts – please do not apply. We are human and will disappoint you.”
Assuming we know best blinds us. Humility allows us to see the value of input from others, regardless of comparative title or other measure of status. It keeps us flexible to consider alternatives, realizing there is often more than one workable approach. It assists us in remaining teachable and to see the value in helping others succeed. Humility fosters respect.
Empathy expands our view by allowing us to make the leap between how we see things and how others do. It reminds us that a person’s behavior is often influenced by factors that are unknown to us. In misunderstandings it gives the benefit of the doubt. Empathy smoothes the inevitable friction that arises in interpersonal relationships.
You’ve built a culture of honesty, respect, humility, and empathy. This creates an environment where openness can exist. Creativity flourishes when people feel free to express their ideas, even if they seem absurd or impractical. Growth happens more quickly when people feel safe to make and share their mistakes. Operational efficiency increases when information is shared, rather than being defensively withheld. The best form of accountability arises, motivated by a sense of ownership not fear of failure.
Inevitably things won’t go according to plan and a common reaction is to identify a root cause. When that root cause is a human or human action the reaction all too often is one of blame or shame. Instead embrace these events as learning opportunities and celebrate the growth that results from them. Safety is the sum of trust, honesty, openness, and clarity and how we pick ourselves back up and bring others along. The obligation of the business is to identify, build, and sustain; celebrating these rises and the dips are instrumental to building a healthy, safe and sustaining culture.
Clarity of purpose
The above cultural values can create a powerful virtuous circle. However, it’s a waste if it’s not thoughtfully focused. Driving a fast car in the wrong direction might be more fun than a slow one, but the outcome isn’t better. We need to make sure we’re going in the right direction.
A culture that prioritizes clarity of purpose means that staff will always know: What are we trying to accomplish? What is most important? How does their work fit into overall goals?