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It’s estimated that the average person spends 90,000 hours at work during their lifetime. That’s one third of our lives.
When you spend that much time in the workplace, the environment matters. If it’s unnecessarily stressful, unhealthy, or toxic, employees will leave either to work for another organization or to be self-employed.
Here’s how to cultivate an environment that brings out the best in your employees, fosters positive relationships, and makes people want to come to work.
What is workplace culture?
According to Forbes, “culture is the environment that surrounds us all the time. A workplace culture is the shared values, belief systems, attitudes, and the set of assumptions that people in a workplace share.
“In a workplace, however, the leadership and the strategic organizational directions and management influence the workplace culture to a huge extent.”
The various interactions, relationships, systems, expectations, and values of the workplace make up the culture, with different companies having vastly different cultures. The culture in a given workplace will not be a good fit for every employee, and that is to be expected.
As individuals have preferences, values, and attitudes, they might have different expectations for an ideal workplace culture. Some prefer a collaborative approach, whereas others might want clear expectations presented by management. Some want to socialize with colleagues outside of the office, and others want to clock out and go straight home.
If your workplace culture fosters good work and appropriate balance, you can recruit employees with personalities and strengths that compliment your culture well. However, if your culture is unhealthy or even toxic, this can negatively impact productivity, employee wellbeing, and retention.
6 contributors to an unhealthy workplace culture
Just as there isn’t one kind of healthy workplace culture, unhealthy or toxic work environments can all look different as well. The following factors are often the greatest contributors to an unhealthy culture. Keep an eye out for these five, and proactively address them whenever they come up in your organization.
In every interaction, three things are communicated:
- What the speaker meant
- What the speaker said
- What the listener heard
When there are disparities between these three, miscommunications often occur.
If leaders are unclear in their communication, employees can become frustrated and may fail to meet standards they didn’t realize were expected.
If an employee is communicating a problem that needs to be solved and management fails to address that issue, the employee may feel unheard and unvalued. In the future, they may feel it’s pointless to try and change things in the workplace, and may start looking for another job instead.
Some managers have a congenial style, which can allow for good rapport and trust with employees. However, some take this to another level and want to be friends with their direct reports. While many get along with their boss and don’t mind a friendlier relationship, the supervisor-supervisee power dynamic makes this a difficult and often inappropriate balance.
As a manager, if you express that you want to be friends with your employees, you can’t know with certainty that your teams don’t feel pressured or coerced into the friendship. They’re in a risky position, because you have the power to discipline or fire them, but you’re asking that they share personal details about their lives or spend time with you off the clock.
Foster community in the workplace without expecting your direct reports to also be your friends.
An overemphasis on negative feedback
We are primed to notice more often when things go wrong than when things go right. This can make it easy to fall into a pattern of criticizing and pointing out mistakes while missing the great work that’s being done.
If your employees only hear what they’ve done wrong, they might feel less motivated to try and get things right. Make sure you are noticing, pointing out, and reinforcing their wins.
Here are a few best practices for doing this well:
- Schedule consistent feedback sessions to keep lines of communication open
- Always start these sessions with what the employee is doing well
- Consistently celebrate good work and wins with the larger team or company, to give employee recognition to a wider audience
You want your employees to be happy and in good spirits, but a “good vibes only” approach is counterproductive. No matter how great a job is, everyone has stress and bad days. If there is no space for bad moods, difficult days, and stress, you risk falling into the trap of toxic positivity.
Give employees space for their frustration—you can’t eliminate all of it. Everyone experiences stress, anger, and annoyance, and feelings demand to be felt. An over-emphasis on “good vibes only” sends the message that criticism or negative feedback is not allowed and can breed resentment.
If employees don’t feel like they can express unpleasant feelings or negative feedback, they will still feel this way. Leaders simply won’t hear about it until they’re handing in their two-week notice.
When leadership is continually pushing for more, it can cause employees to become overwhelmed and burned out. You want optimal productivity for the business to be successful, but are you overworking your people?
Emphasize work-life balance, and mean it. When an employee expresses that they’re struggling, find ways to make their workload more manageable rather than encouraging vague “self-care” off the clock.
If your employees feel valued and have a passion for their work, they might also be driven to keep going even when they need a break. Make sure you are checking in, even with those who seem to be performing very well.
Require workers to use PTO rather than letting it continue to accumulate. Unlimited PTO is a valued benefit, but if your company offers this, employees may be taking less time off than they would with a set amount. Consider requiring each employee to take a minimum number of days off each year, to ensure they’re getting the recharge time they need.
Lastly, make workloads realistic so employees don’t rely on overtime to get everything done. Many businesses try to cut costs by reducing staff, but continue to expect the same level of productivity.
When you overwork your employees, you send the message that their personal wellbeing is not a priority. This creates a culture that demands more and more until they burn out and leave for a position that has room for self-care and respects their needs as human beings.
This can also generate resentment and negativity, which both inhibits productivity and inspires commiseration with colleagues—leading to apathy, lack of connection to work, and poor mental health.
How can leadership foster healthy culture?
Leaders have the power to create a healthy—or an unhealthy—culture. Positive reinforcement, healthy boundaries, and effective communication are excellent starting points to ensure your workplace is providing the healthy environment your employees need to thrive.
Taking the following two steps can have an immediate impact.
Ask for feedback and act on it
The best way to make the changes your employees need is to ask them what those needs are. There are many ways to seek feedback from your employees, and they are more likely to give you honest answers if they have a variety of options.
Regular feedback sessions communicate to employees that you truly want to hear what they have to say, whether it’s positive or negative, but some may feel uncomfortable or unsafe being honest in this setting. They may feel more comfortable submitting their requests anonymously.
Regardless of the way you ask for feedback, make a commitment to implement the information you receive. If you acknowledge the feedback but say, “here is why we can’t or won’t change,” you can’t expect your employees to continue taking time to tell you what they need.
Provide positive reinforcement
We’re all more likely to repeat behaviors that lead to a desired outcome. This means giving employees praise and recognition—letting them know what they did well so they can reach these expectations again in the future.
It also means incentivizing, mentoring and fostering growth, and providing opportunities for career development. Consistent reinforcement increases engagement and motivation.
Remember that no workplace is perfect, and there will always be conflicts, disagreements, and bad days. If leadership takes steps to foster a healthy culture, they can handle difficult situations effectively and provide an environment that prioritizes wellbeing for all employees.
Here are three more ways to encourage wellbeing at work that increase performance and productivity and lower burnout and employee turnover.