Discover the Hidden Barriers to Sustaining a Positive Work Culture

Ever found yourself wondering why, despite implementing all the right strategies, it’s a challenge to sustain a truly positive work culture? Even with the best intentions and efforts, achieving the desired results remains elusive for many. While you may be offering the right perks and fostering a positive environment, maintaining these results long-term requires a deeper understanding. Today, we’ll uncover some of the hidden barriers that hinder your ability to sustain a positive work culture.

The Misconception

Workplace culture is a dynamic force, possessing a life of its own. It’s subject to the constant ebb and flow of leaders and employees. A culture is also influenced by various factors such as industry trends, shifts in the competitive landscape, technological advancements, and evolving societal values. So, what’s the missing piece of the puzzle?

I used to believe that if you had solid leadership, a good culture could flourish.  Think of it like a bone-dry dessert. All it needs is water to flourish and bloom.  And that may be true for a little while, but without long-term consistent watering, the dessert will dry up again. You’ll get short bursts of brilliance, followed by a drought. I soon discovered a more complex reality.

Let me share a story about a client company.

More Than a Good Leader?

In this small company, a group of dedicated employees had endured many years under the reign of an authoritarian president. Finally, a turning point arrived when a highly respected internal leader was promoted, ushering in a new era. This visionary leader believed that by sharing their vision, they would empower the talented team, and these individuals would eagerly embrace their newfound freedom.

However, the transition didn’t unfold as smoothly as expected. The team had been held down and held back for such a long time that they had developed a pattern akin to what psychology terms “learned helplessness.” They’d learned to keep their heads down, and do what they were told, or suffer the consequences. It became clear that undoing years of compliance would pose a more significant challenge than initially thought. But not impossible.

This challenge required more than a visionary leader. It required outside assistance and a profound understanding of the team’s past experiences. The team needed consistent unwavering support to nurture them into becoming self-leaders. Over time, this support and empowerment enabled them to feel safe and confident in their newfound freedom, able to contribute to the company’s growth and success.

The Hidden Barrier

Over the years, I’ve come to learn that one of the hidden barriers to becoming a self-leader is a form of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that develops from past experiences. This is a condition where the scars of past workplace trauma haunt employees even after they’ve moved on to new opportunities. Just as soldiers may carry the emotional and psychological wounds of battle, employees bear the weight of previous toxic work environments.

Our life experiences significantly shape our mindset and perspectives, or the way we see and experience the world. Think of these perspectives as lenses that filter and color your reactions and responses to every situation. Individuals who have endured toxic workplaces often develop lenses that distort their thinking, behavior, and their capacity to embrace self-leadership. It’s like carrying invisible baggage into their new roles, and unless we acknowledge and address it, these experiences can continue to impede their growth and potential as self-leaders, even in a company with a positive work culture.

Perception is Reality

Let’s illustrate this with a workplace event. The event itself is neutral, neither inherently good nor bad. However, the history and life experiences of each person influence how they perceive and interpret this neutral experience. It’s like when two people attend a party or a movie, and each person has a different understanding of the experience based on their unique perspectives.

Now, imagine this phenomenon occurring across your workforce. You invest substantial effort into a carefully curated event. Some employees view the event and its message positively, while others perceive it negatively. The crucial point is that the event itself remains the same, yet the individual lenses are uniquely different for each person. This emphasizes the importance of understanding that these different lenses impact your effort in sustaining a positive workplace culture. 

The Importance of Trust

In my experience, I’ve learned that employees who have previously encountered ‘bad’ work environments, (experiences, or even relationships) often struggle to believe when a ‘good’ one is real. They question the sincerity of what they hear, see, or even experience firsthand. So the question is, how do you demonstrate that you mean what you say, and build trust?

The key lies in unwavering dedication to consistently living up to your promises. It’s not about the words engraved on a plaque or digitally on your website as a mission or values statement.  It is about embodying your organizational values day in and day out. Your actions and those of your company speak louder than any written proclamation. If your company professes to care about people, that commitment should shine through during both the thriving and challenging periods. It’s in these challenging moments when your words and actions matter most when a company’s character (and leader’s) is measured.

Are You Committed?

What does your commitment to a positive culture say about you? Imagine the power you hold as a leader, in modeling your company’s mission and values and building trust with your team. Your actions speak louder than your words.

A friend works for a small consulting firm that is dedicated to building and nurturing a robust company culture.  They believe in training, leadership development, and a positive culture so strongly that they set aside one day per quarter for Leadership Team Meetings. The whole company is expected to attend. Employees at every level are brought onsite, even team members living out of state. Throughout the day, teams meet in groups and as a whole. And, everyone is encouraged to participate in an evening activity designed to build relationships, nurture their community, and deepen connections.

Key Steps to Sustaining a Positive Culture

Now that you understand the misconceptions, the hidden barriers, and the importance of building trust, what else can you do to nurture and sustain a positive, value-driven culture?

Here are three key actions:

1. Self-Leadership Development Training:

Self-leadership development training establishes the expectation that we all come to the workplace with different life experiences and perspectives in seeing the world. As self-leaders, team members must learn that they are responsible for their thinking, behaviors, and outcomes.  Investing in self-leadership development empowers your team. By teaching them how to be accountable and responsible for growing into self-leaders, they can become responsible for creating a more positive work culture.

2. Continuous Communication:

Foster a culture of open and continuous communication. Encourage your employees to share their concerns, ideas, and feedback. As a leader, you need to be accessible and willing to listen. Carve out frequent, consistent one-on-one meetings to build trust and rapport. Be sure communication isn’t just about talking, but about active listening. Foster an environment where employees feel valued and heard, and they will be more likely to feel safe to express their thoughts and concerns. Nurturing a feeling of safety and trust provides a platform for addressing hidden barriers that might be affecting the culture.  This takes time and effort, but the benefits in terms of trust and overall workplace culture are immeasurable.

3. Express Deep Appreciation:

It’s easy to get caught up in “doing”, solving problems, and putting out fires. But to truly foster a positive culture, it’s crucial to express deep appreciation. This isn’t merely about acknowledging a person’s work but celebrating their individuality and the multifaceted aspects that make them who they are.

  • Personal Milestones: Take the time to celebrate personal milestones.  Recognize the birth of a child, a wedding, or other significant life events. These moments matter greatly and acknowledging them sends a powerful message that the organization cares about the well-being of its team members beyond their work-related contributions.
  • Professional Achievements: Celebrate professional achievements including the completion of advanced degrees, certifications, or significant career milestones. This demonstrates the company’s investment in its employees’ growth and also motivates others to pursue their own development.
  • Individual Contributions: Recognize and celebrate the unique contributions that each employee brings to the table. Whether it’s securing a valuable client, devising innovative solutions, or simply being a positive influence on the team, these individual contributions are the building blocks of a great culture.
  • Inclusive Celebrations: Foster a culture of inclusivity by recognizing and celebrating cultural and religious holidays or observances. This demonstrates respect for diversity and makes every employee feel valued and included.
  • Meaningful Recognition: Implement recognition that goes beyond monetary rewards. Meaningful recognition can include personalized thank-you notes, public recognition during team meetings, or even symbolic gestures like custom workplace awards. Meaningful acts of appreciation resonate with employees on a deep level.

Expressing deep appreciation is about recognizing the humanity and individuality of each team member. It goes beyond a routine thank-you and taps into the core of what makes employees feel truly valued. Employees must feel appreciated not just for their work but for who they are as people. When employees feel valued, they are more likely to be engaged, empowered, and trust in the organization’s commitment to their well-being and growth.

Don’t Let Hidden Forces Stop You

Creating and maintaining a great work culture is a multifaceted journey. We’ve explored the hidden forces that shape your workplace culture, from the misconceptions about leadership to the often-overlooked barriers rooted in past experiences. The thread connecting these elements is a foundational understanding of your role as a self-leader, responsible for your thinking, words, and actions.

Additionally, for an organization to unlock an employee’s reserve of commitment, engagement, and potential, trust in leadership, the workplace, and the organization’s commitment to an employee’s growth and well-being are paramount. Building a culture where employees feel safe to be their best selves and self-leaders is a journey of both learning and unlearning. Trust is the cornerstone of a positive work culture.

Reflect on Your Actions

I encourage you to reflect on how YOU embody your company’s values.

Do you, along with your executive team, leaders, and employees, model self-leadership?
Are your leaders accountable and responsible for contributing to a positive workplace culture?

Embrace the challenge of fostering a culture where individuals can unlock their full potential, and where trust in leadership serves as the foundation of your organization’s success.

If you’re committed to creating a truly remarkable positive work culture, keep up the great work!  On the other hand, if your company is coming up short of this goal, perhaps you need a new perspective to overcome the hidden barriers in your workplace. Let’s explore the difference self-leadership can make for you and your organization. Reach out, I’m here to support you on this journey.

Kristin Clark is a partner and certified coach with Axiogenics. She’s also co-author of Living a Richer Life; It’s All in Your Head. She has coached hundreds of people from a range of backgrounds and beliefs, industries, and professions. Kristin trains and coaches executives, leaders, and individuals in Valuegenic Self-Leadership. This powerful self-development program will help you master your mindset for more confidence, clarity, impact, and meaning. Start Living a Richer Life today!

Photo by Ugne Vasyliute on Unsplash

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