In the age of disruption, it’s time to rethink your workplace culture

Workplace culture

by Jennifer Gardner, Lead Manager - Communications - Engagement and Learning Innovation

Spoiler alert: Nice guys (and gals) don’t finish last.

The rapid growth of technology, combined with global events such as the Great Recession, has transformed how we work. Now, it’s up to leaders to foster a healthy workplace amid disruptive forces such as volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (referred to in the book simply as VUCA).

VUCA has put increased pressure on managers and leaders to produce results. Stir in communication technologies that create expectations of immediate response and you risk creating a toxic recipe – a workplace where employees are burned out and/or scared to lose their job, Swora says. The result? Less productivity and efficiency, not more.  

“There’s all this amazing talent, and it’s getting stifled not by bad intent but by disruption,” says Carolyn Swora, author of Rules of Engagement: Building a Workplace Culture to Thrive in an Uncertain World. The good news is that companies that create positive workplace cultures will better leverage their talent.

If anyone knows about disruption, it’s Swora. Fourteen years ago, her husband learned he had stage 4 kidney cancer. She was six months pregnant. While it would have been tempting to focus on the trauma and countless “to-dos,” Swora concentrated her energy on creating good experiences so their sons could remember positive things about their dad. “Every year we got was going to be a miracle,” she said.

She took that experience to the office, working to create positive environments where she noticed people were afraid or exhausted. Now, Swora helps organizations develop healthier workplaces.

Swora connects Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs to performance. The need to belong, Swora says, serves as a critical link between the base and higher needs. “When [people] feels like they belong, they feel safer, more confident and more able to feel vulnerable."

Purpose and value matter – a lot

A vital tenet in her philosophy is that performance happens at the intersection of purpose and belonging. “Every person wants to know what their work is contributing to,” she said. For example, a manager at a hospital can make sure maintenance staff realize that they are not just cleaning; they are working to prevent infection, which keeps people alive. If people don’t think their work is important, “they will get up and leave.”.   

Swora also stresses the importance of clearly communicating the company’s values through action as well as words. She points to Wells Fargo, which was fined $185 million after it was discovered that employees created fake accounts to meet company quotas. “They had a nice, shiny brochure. Everyone knew those values, but what was missing was the behavior to define it.”. The system rewarded staff for getting more clients instead of providing excellent service.

For Swora, transformational leadership is also critical to creating a thriving culture. “Transactional leaders focus on base needs such as job security and financial safety,” she writes, threatening to take away security, a basic need.  “Transformational leaders ensure base needs are taken care of so they can focus on driving performance.”    

The engagement rules

Swora recommends that leaders incorporate the four principles below into the workplace to create positive experiences:

  • Connection:  Be present in interactions and create real connections, e.g., be present in interactions and focus on building positive working relationships.
  • Collaboration:  Consider new ways to evaluate performance or encourage excellence. Find ways to leverage everyone’s strength and set team goals for projects. This minimizes individual competition and focuses on group contribution.
  • Adaptability:  Prepare for disruption by keeping an eye on trends and adopting shorter planning cycles if changes are needed.
  • Equivalence:  While hierarchies are still useful, Swora thinks everyone can be a leader in some way. Managers should look to the front-line staff, for example, to help solve a customer service problem.

Another key change she sees is the number of generations in one office, each bringing different beliefs about work. The environment and processes that a Millennial expects will differ from that of a Gen Xer or Baby Boomer. Gen Xers inherited a more traditional structure where “you work for decades and expect to be rewarded for your loyalty,” Swora noted. Now, the loyalty is shifting to teams or a cause but not necessarily to an organization.

Leaders will increase productivity if they recognize the value of all generations. Swora encourages managers to resist buying into stereotypes for any of them. For example, companies can recognize the value that more senior staff deliver and introduce reverse mentoring programs to bridge any gaps, rather than assume they cannot keep up. Employees will need to adapt as well, demonstrating their value rather than simply performing tasks.

At the root of it all is what Swora describes as an unwritten psychological contract. Under that contract, people expect certain behaviors and treatment (politeness, respect, etc.). A climate that honors the contract promotes excellence. It also allows nice people to finish first.

To learn more listen into our conversation with Carolyn Swora on the Go beyond disruption podcast below. If you enjoyed this blog post visit our Human Intelligence series to learn more about the skills of the future workplace.

Go beyond disruption podcast