The Key Characteristics of an Incredible Workplace Culture

positive workplace culture has a simple anatomy

Good leaders advance a company’s financial goals consistently.

Great leaders advance a company’s workplace culture consistently.

Both contribute to the bottom line, but only one builds a workplace that is ignited from within by individuals who work seamlessly as a team…in good times and bad.

Understanding the dynamics of a positive workplace culture – not to be confused with workplace engagement – and capitalizing on those dynamics takes your leadership from good to great.

I’ve studied hundreds of organizations during the course of my career as an executive and as a business coach. I’ve learned that a positive workplace culture has a simple and powerful anatomy.

Positive workplace culture versus workplace engagement…what’s the difference?

Before we dive into the anatomy lesson, let’s distinguish the difference between “engagement” and “culture” in a workplace.

Many organizations get stuck in a rut of conducting engagement surveys. But the results only give leaders part of the story.

Engagement surveys tell leaders whether or not their employees understand the what, when, where, and who of their job.

  • Do they have the tools they need?
  • Do employees know the chain of command?
  • Do they feel safe and appreciated in their workplace?

These are important details to know. But they skip the critical element: why.

Inspired employees are a product of a thriving culture. They understand the “why” of the organization. They feel like their skills are being used to advance the overall goals of the company. And they understand those goals, have adopted them as their own. They are not just motivated, they are inspired.

Leaders will only discover whether or not their employees know the “why” by conducting a culture assessment.

So let’s look more closely at an inspired workforce…

The three characteristics of a positive workplace culture.

1. It is fueled by change.

Thomas Edison said, “We cannot solve the problems of today with the same thinking we used to create them.”

Continuous growth, learning, and transformation are critical to moving forward, for leaders and employees alike.

The same applies to your workplace culture. Too often, leaders settle for a culture that allows for financial stability, the ability to create relationships with suppliers, employees, customers…

The company has institutionalized processes and policies. They can be easily replicated from branch to branch, locally and internationally.

Leaders bring their specific skillset, education, and experience to the table and work with that finite resource to build and maintain a business.

That’s good. But not great.

A great culture embodies learning, innovation, agility, collaboration. And these are just considered the baseline for a positive workplace culture…

Great leaders are in constant learning mode. They’re refining their skills, reading books about leadership, attending seminars, working with coaches and mentors.

Great leaders look at professional development as a standard part of running a successful business.

They aren’t just asking how to improve their products or services. They’re asking how to improve their culture, every day.

2. It is outward – not inward-looking.

Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” sought to explain motivation as a continuum of fulfilling personal needs:

  1. Physiological needs: food, water, shelter, safety.
  2. Psychological needs: love, acceptance, belonging.
  3. Self-fulfillment needs: esteem and actualization.

That model can be applied to your business, as well, but as a hierarchy of development.

At one end of the continuum is the focus on survival, to make enough money to meet payroll, pay vendors…

At the other end, your company’s service to humanity.

In the middle is the quest for transformation and improvement.

Unlike Maslow’s hierarchy, where one level builds on another to achieve success, organizations must operate across the continuum of development at all times.

Good companies can stagnate by constantly focussing on financial stability, employee satisfaction, process improvement.

Great companies see these markers as the cost of entry.

Great companies have established themselves in all these areas…they’re also able to focus on purpose, employee fulfillment, and strategic alliances.

They’ve grown past the “what’s in it for me” phase and are now operating with a “what’s in it for you” mindset.

3. It has an unwavering core.

The culture of an organization may need to shift depending on its business cycle, but the core of its business values should never shift.

These values should be constantly communicated – and demonstrated – throughout the company.

A positive workplace culture is pervasive. In a truly great culture, it’s an unconscious lens for every activity, within every department, at every branch…

David Caputo, co-founder and former CEO of Sandvine, made it pervasive by literally naming it, “The Sandvine Way”. In a chat with me, he explained,

The Sandvine Way is on the back of my name badge, there’s posters up on the wall, and it’s very unusual that an initiative or a project is kicked off that the first or second slide isn’t the Sandvine Way slide.

At his quarterly all-hands meeting he’d receive 5-10 nominations for individuals or teams embodying The Sandvine Way. He’d create an educational training story out of the examples, capturing the attention – and imagination – of the whole company.

He didn’t give out prizes. The reward was acknowledgement among peers and an opportunity to learn something new about ways that all employees could embody The Sandvine Way.

Which part of your workplace culture anatomy needs a tune-up?

You might be reading this and thinking that your company has good muscle tone in one of these areas…but chances are there’s room for improvement.

Want to find out where the weaknesses lie? Conduct a workplace culture survey. Or, ask your employees to describe their workplace…

Listen for words like,

  • Adaptability
  • Innovation
  • Continuous learning
  • Collaboration
  • Customer experience

If these words aren’t top of mind for your employees there’s a good chance you don’t have a truly positive workplace culture.

When you think about the values upon which you built your company, the ones you envisioned would lead to success, do you see behaviours that embody those values?

It’s absolutely vital for leaders to reinforce company values – especially during these challenging times. What steps will you take to strengthen your core?

If you’d like help finding ways to reignite your team and lead your company through this unique time in our business lives, contact me. I have the tools and resources you need to take your leadership skills – and your workplace culture – from good to great.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you:

How Unretired Baby Boomers are Causing a Shift in Workplace Culture
Why are Workplace Culture Changes Failing? How to Avoid this Major Pitfall
The Next Evolution in Leadership – Will You Fit In?

This article was originally published in 2018, and has been updated for 2020. 

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