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Top Executives Talk About Defining Workplace Culture: Part 2

Culture is increasingly seen as a critical business issue by leaders in every industry. But what makes a great workplace culture?

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BY Adam Fridman - 23 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Culture isn't just an issue that's discussed in a job interview and immediately forgotten. It's increasingly seen as a critical business issue by leaders in every industry. But what makes a great workplace culture?

In the last installment of this series on defining workplace culture, five leading executives shared their thoughts on the topic. Their ideas included putting purpose first, prioritizing happiness, remembering that culture is shared by everyone, inclusion and diversity, and focusing on personal growth to drive company success. In today's installment, five more experts go deeper on what constitutes a truly great workplace culture.

The Personal is Professional

What holds people back from bringing their best selves to work? Sometimes it's the positive and negative experiences they're having in their personal life outside the office that are reflected in their work. Yet, employers traditionally haven't been particularly interested in employee's off-duty lives.

According to Kevin Yip, COO of Blueboard - an experiential employee rewards company - that separation between the professional and the personal is changing in today's best workplace cultures. Says Yip. "In the past, people were satisfied with keeping work and life separate, but now people want more. They want to be connected to their work and they want a more fulfilling life. They're seeking extrinsic and intrinsic motivation."

"The modern day organization cares for you holistically - as a whole person," says Yip. "Great cultures care not just about your performance, but about your personal desires outside of work, your family, your life. They're helping people pursue their dreams beyond work and supporting their experiences."

The Right to Ask Why

In top-down, hierarchical workplace cultures, executives and leaders may know the reasons for doing things a certain way but many of the employees who actually do the work may not. Paulo Rosado, CEO of low-code application development platform OutSystems says this approach is a sign of a weak culture.

"As companies grow, information starts to be filtered from the people who need to act on it," says Rosado. "We need to give employees permission to ask 'why?' so that they understand everything in full and not through a filter."

According to Rosado, the right to question and be questioned is a key component of a strong workplace culture. "Today's workers seek purpose from their work," says Rosado. "They need to understand how the initiative they are working on supports purpose. Managers need to help make that connection. We need to focus less on telling people what to do and how to do it. Instead, we need to establish context and leave execution to the team."

Fear is the Enemy of Innovation

Innovation is the lifeblood of almost every business. But in many cultures there's something holding people back from bringing their best ideas to work: fear. David Nichols is charged with fostering a culture of innovation inside EY Consulting in the Americas., one of the world's leading consulting organizations. According to Nichols, "In an innovative culture, everyone has to feel they are a part of the future of that company, that they are invested in its success."

Fear, says Nichols, is the enemy of the sense of belonging that fosters innovation. "You can't have a fear of being wrong. You can't be driven by being right because fear of making mistakes paralyzes innovation. You learn some of your best lessons from the things that didn't work. Truly innovative cultures don't get bogged down in fear of failure. They mesh together everything they learn - good and bad - to connect the dots and make it work."

Culture Starts At the Top

"Culture needs to start and manifest at the top," says David Niu, Founder and CEO of TINYpulse, an employee engagement platform. What this means, according to Niu, is that whatever values you want to see reflected in your culture must first be in place at the executive and leadership level.

"There are three things the best cultures seem to do well: strong purpose, true transparency and meaningful recognition," says Niu. "Transparency at the top is critical, even in board meetings, so that everyone understands what you're working toward and trying to accomplish. You need transparency in hiring and firing, so that your values aren't just words. And recognition should be something anyone can give: top down, peer to peer, or from the bottom up."

Value People's Knowledge

Today's employees are more knowledgeable on a wider range of topics than ever before, says Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify, an employee knowledge platform. She says great cultures know how to take advantage of this knowledge and encourage employees to share it for the benefit of the organization.

"We all in life are knowledgeable about many things, yet our level of patience to wait for the information we need isn't there anymore," says Leaman. "Employers are expected to provide information, to tell people what they need to know in a way that is personalized for each individual. But in fact, that information often actually resides within our people."

Says Leaman, "The best cultures recognize the level of knowledge their people have and encourage them to share what they know so that others who need that information can access it. They create value for each individual regardless of where they are in their life with the organization."

Why Culture Matters

Multiple studies indicate that culture is strongly tied to financial performance and business results. A recent study by HR consultancy Aon points to why: Aon found that engaged cultures were less likely to display what the study called "limiting behaviors": dysfunctions that include blame, bureaucracy, caution, control and hierarchy. If you're looking for ways to improve financial results and also make your business a more engaged and productive place to work, focusing on culture is a great place to start.

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