Workplace culture, from how a business looks to employee attitudes and communication, reinforces how an organization, or team, operates. It’s a fundamental element that can have a huge impact, whether it’s positive or negative is up to you.

Key ingredients

Businesses that have strong and positive workplace cultures have two things in common:

1. The soft skill behaviors that are high-priority are clearly defined.

2. Those high-priority behaviors are shouted from the rooftops, loudly and often.

And this is no coincidence. By establishing and emphasizing the key soft skill behaviors that are at the core of the business, or team for that matter, employees have a clear picture of what is expected, which leads to better performance in the workplace– even the youngest, least-experienced employees.

These powerful cultures don’t just happen. They are the result of a company that knows exactly what its high-priority behaviors are, focuses on them relentlessly, and systematically drives those behaviors throughout the organization in all of its management practices. The message is crystal clear and on auto-repeat.

Where to start

When designing a positive workplace culture, first ask yourself what are the high-priority behaviors that are most important in your sphere?

For example, if I’m the bar manager at a popular fine-dining restaurant, the high-priority behaviors for my team might be attentiveness and professionalism, which are applicable to the restaurant’s staff as a whole, as well as cleanliness as a messy bar is off-putting to guests.

Once the soft skill behaviors are defined, it’s easy:

  • Make them the foundation of your culture. Focus on them relentlessly, and systematically drive those behaviors throughout your sphere in all of your management practices. This means leading by example
  • Then sing it from the rooftops—make it 1000 percent clear.
  • And start doing everything within your power to drive, support, and reward those high-priority behaviors with every employee within your sphere.

How managers fit in

Creating and sustaining a positive workplace culture is not solely on the shoulders of the owner or general manager; managers with small staffs are also responsible for propagating the message throughout their own spheres regardless of whether or not the organization as a whole has a strong culture. In this case, it’s up to the manager to design a positive culture that will drive performance.

If your organization has a strong positive culture by design, then you need to be in alignment. Ask yourself:

What are the high-priority behaviors?

What are you doing in your sphere to drive and support and reward those behaviors in everything you do as a leader?

If your organization has a less-than-strong positive culture, then it’s all up to you. You need to create your own culture within your own sphere—not just for the young talent, but for everybody.

You don’t need to start a revolution. But you can be a little bit of a maverick. You can certainly be a change leader.

Your results will speak for themselves because your team will stand out, not just in its business outcomes, but in cohesiveness, morale, and retention.

Common roadblocks to positive culture

When policy and message do not align:

Some organizations are all talk and no action when it comes to culture.  They have great slogans, but they do not drive, support, nor reward key behaviors among employees that are in alignment with the messages. If employees have regular run-ins with customers because management has very strict policies against, say, exchanges and returns, then it really doesn’t matter how many placards there are in the store that say, “The customer is always right!”

When there is a call for immediate change in culture:

We all know change doesn’t happen overnight. Yet, there are organizations in which leaders get very serious about changing their corporate culture—all of a sudden. It’s as if these leaders have an epiphany and realize what they’ve been missing and decide they want a strong positive culture—and they want it now. They want culture change overnight, by decree: “From now on, our culture will be ___________!” Fill in the blank: “honesty!” “teamwork!” “innovation!”  But you can’t force culture change overnight. It takes time because behavioral changes take time.

When the organization’s culture lacks cohesion:

Of course, plenty of leaders pay no attention to corporate culture whatsoever. Many senior managers have never considered workplace culture until now, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. This is what Bruce Tulgan, CEO of the management research and training firm RainmakerThinking, refers to as ‘culture by default’,

“Just because you have never paid any attention to culture, doesn’t mean you don’t have a corporate culture. It just means you have a culture by default instead of by design.”

That is your corporate culture is simply the combined web of prevailing shared beliefs, meaning, language, practices, and traditions that have developed over time between and among the people in your organization. Whether it’s overall nature is positive or negative, cultures that are developed by default lack cohesion. There is no central message that defines employees’ overall mission.

The idea of putting work into building a positive workplace culture is not a new phenomenon (because of millennials). In fact, it’s just common sense: happy employees are good employees!

More articles on management →