Many companies, big and small, struggle with workplace culture issues. Whether it’s a manager’s behavior, disrespectful comments, or micro-aggressions between employees, unhealthy culture can permeate an office environment. Yet those at the top may have a hard time diagnosing this unhealthy culture, simply because they’re insulated from what is happening among their employees.
“There has always been a big disconnect between what people know and do in the trenches, vis-à-vis what the business leaders know. It’s almost like two realities,” Janine Yancey said in a From Day One webinar last week. Yancey is founder and CEO of Emtrain, which develops innovative ways to build positive and healthy corporate cultures. Often that means changing workplace behaviors.
Employees in entry- and mid-level positions, said Yancey, tend to report that they’ve known for years about a manager’s misconduct or behavior, yet those at the top are not aware of the issue and the harassment often goes unreported to HR departments and higher ups.
After observing this in her role as a corporate lawyer, Yancey decided to address the roots of the problem, long before the issues wind up in litigation. “I started Emtrain to not only address compliance training, which was kind of the most obvious solution, but do it in a way so that you fix what I call the Broken Feedback Loop,” Yancey said. It is this loop of being unable to get through to top executives, she said, that accounts for a dysfunctional system that fails to address problems in a company’s culture and heal it from within.
But how can we make space to talk about workplace culture, especially in the pandemic times that we now find ourselves? And what steps can businesses take to ensure that their leaders understand and empathize with the concerns of their workforce? Journalist Lydia Dishman, who reports for Fast Company and other publications, interviewed Yancey in From Day One’s webinar titled, “How to decode the 6 key factors impacting workplace culture.” Here are the highlights (and register to see the video here):
Navigating Tough Times
“This time is going to be the time where we step up and become culture leaders, or not,” said Yancey. She explained that stressful times–and these are some of the worst ever for Corporate America–often reveal people’s respect for one another, or lack thereof. In the next year, ethics problems may arise for many companies, she warns. “This is what happens when times get tough.”
The ability to collaborate with each other, keeping employees and executives aligned during difficult times, is a defining element of healthy corporate cultures. And as we encounter a new wave of the digital revolution, it has become increasingly important for leaders to consider that their actions are visible to everyone.
“This will be the first time in history that all of us as people leaders, as business leaders, are making these types of decisions under a microscope,” says Yancey.
Leaders can navigate these tricky situations using Emtrain’s Workplace Culture Diagnostic to get to the root of problems and help companies on a path to healthier practices. This tool analyzes organizational and people data to inform companies where a breakdown in culture may be happening with a detailed and anonymous survey.
“The three pillars of any healthy workplace culture are respect, inclusion, and ethics,” Yancey says. “If you don’t have those three main pillars, you really don’t have anything.”
The Six Key Factors
Alongside those pillars, there are elements that leaders can look for to get to the root of common workplace-culture problems. Emtrain uses the survey to analyze six key factors that can lead to culture breakdowns:
In/Out groups: “Think back to the high school quad, you’ve got the ‘cool kids’ and the ‘not so cool kids,’” Yancey explained. This can extend beyond gender and race lines to things like political affiliation, religious beliefs, and anything that can create a division between one group closer to a source of power and the other marginalized in some way.
Yancey noted a particular example of a tech company in which the majority of employees identified as politically progressive while a smaller group of conservative employees felt ostracized from the rest of the company, not an uncommon division in the tech world.
Understanding the degree to which us-vs.-themmentalities play into day-to-day interactions can help businesses account for who feels safe, accepted, and valued at their places of work.
Power dynamics: “I remember when I was in litigation, and I would be defending a manager, typically a white, male manager, who was accused of some wrongdoing and who was a nice person, but was kind of clueless,” Yancey said. “At the end of the day that person is inviting a 25 year old to have a glass of wine and he’s not really thinking anything of it, while the 25-year-old woman is thinking ‘Oh, gosh, I have to say yes,’” Yancey said.
This kind of situation highlights how leaders must be aware of power hierarchies, in which a lower-ranking employee may feel pressured to do things they wouldn’t normally do. The more that executives understand the implications of their power, the healthier that workplace can be for those across the company.
Organizational norms and practices: Beyond email protocol and communication styles, healthy workplaces align their employees to specific norms and practices with clear expectations. Yancey suggests asking the question, “Does everyone map to a similar theme or style in that organization?” When all parties know what is acceptable behavior and what is not, the likelihood of crossing the line decreases.
Yancey believes that this may be the most important aspect of building healthy workplace culture. According to a data set by Emtrain in which 2.5 million employees from various companies were surveyed for the Workplace Culture Report 2020, “the healthiest companies all show that their workforce says ‘We have really strong norms and practices.’” The opposite is also true: unhealthy companies are correlated with fewer mandated norms and practices.
Unconscious bias: “Each of us comes with our own baggage to our workplaces,” said Yancey. Understanding what each of us comes in the door with can help mitigate tricky culture issues. Leaders can not only help employees uncover their biases, but also analyze the ways in which they themselves behave in the workplace. One way Emtrain works with companies to uncover these is with video training. Employees can watch a scenario and reflect on the ways different parties behaved in workplace situations.
Social intelligence: Yancey reflected on social intelligence, or as she put it, “the ability to read a room.” This has to do with employees being able to adapt to different social situations and act accordingly. Some are better at decoding non-verbal communication than others, which she says can have its own set of implications when thinking about healthy culture.
Pre-existing mindsets: “We are all a product of our former experiences,” Yancey said. “This is going to shape how we interact with people.” Understanding that we are all unique and shaped by the events of our lives, companies can use this element to build rapport with employees. While not everyone can relate to certain life experiences, culture leaders can work to empathize with the lives of their employees so that everyone feels understood and safe on the job.
With these key indicators built into the surveys, Emtrain shows managers the data, collected anonymously to protect employees, and helps them assess the health and safety of their workplaces based on the answers they receive, Yancey said.
Using the Data
After Emtrain gathers the information, usually a few tough conversations need to be had, especially with companies reporting low morale or compliance issues. “Was anyone shocked” to see their own data? asked Dishman.
Yancey described a situation in which a leader of a company with an unhealthy environment learned of how her employees felt about a few executives who had acted unethically. “She was surprised that it was that pervasive,” Yancey said.
Acting on the sometimes-negative results of these surveys is essential to rebuilding culture in a company. Once managers understand the context of the issues, their companies can work quickly to avoid being in “reactive mode.” Yancey suggests involving change-management teams to help leaders understand their unconscious biases, power disparities, and social intelligence.
Workplace Issues in the Remote Era
Tying into our recent webinar on leading remote teams, Dishman asked if this process of bettering workplace culture would look different now that so many office workers are doing their jobs from home. What if poor behavior could fly under the radar because we can’t see how people are treating each other?
“The silver lining is that it’s going to highlight the need to develop skills,” Yancey said. “Your ability to be empathetic, your ability to switch your perspective and understand how someone else is experiencing things, your ability to be inclusive and to communicate. These are all skills that we have to build up, because if we don’t build them up, then we have these bad culture outcomes.”
From the top-down, leaders can intentionally check in with employees during this tumultuous period. Honesty, transparency, and collaboration are the keys to navigating deeply uncertain and troubling times. When tackling many new issues, Yancey endorses “employee-first solutions” and dealing with workplace-culture problems early and head on, as small things can grow into larger issues down the line. She said the easiest way to achieve this is by sharing data with top decision-makers, even if those decisions are tough to face.
“This is a time for leadership,” she said. “You need to proactively lean in, work with your C-suite, get a plan together. Communicate and over-communicate. Follow it up with actions. HR leaders can really step up to the plate and be the strong business advisors to the C-suite while they are preoccupied with emergencies.”
Please join us this Thurs., April 16, at 2 pm EDT for our next webinar, focusing on the future of work. You can register to attend here.
Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.