leadership

Seven essential steps to create a thriving, respectful workplace culture

Eve Ash /

“One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl” is a puzzling aphorism, but perhaps the Osmonds were just being hopeful. 

Eighteenth-century inventor Benjamin Franklin saw it the other way — “the rotten apple spoils his companion”. Apples give off ethylene, so as one rots, the others begin to as well, and before you know it, you’ve got a case of bad apples. 

What’s true of apples seems to be true for the workplace. 

Toxic cultures alive and unwell

It’s alarming to read about Australian organisations with toxic cultures and dysfunctional management teams. But how does this arise?

It’s worth remembering that frontline sectors such as health, emergency services, police and education are straining under the weight of insufficient resources and never-ending paperwork. Stressful jobs in stretched organisations contribute to pressure-cooker workplace cultures. Before long, they begin cannibalising themselves with chief executives blaming staff and vice versa. It takes well-trained, insightful senior management and a collaborative, supportive team environment to allow any potential for progress.

A shining example from the past

Weary Dunlop was a wartime Australian doctor and army commander who persuaded his fellow officers to give up their money so sick prisoners could be fed and cared for in extreme conditions. The late Hawke government minister Tom Uren, a fellow prisoner of war on the Burma-Thailand Railway, commented that nearby British prisoners had a fraction of the Australians’ survival rate, because the latter subscribed to a “spirit of collectivism“, inspired by Weary’s example. 

During his long life, Weary Dunlop was hailed for his leadership and compassion. It’s noteworthy that he made the most of his early training as a surgeon, resolving to emulate his medical mentors who impressed him with their dedication. Surrounded by starvation, misery and death, he restored his men’s physical and emotional morale, comforted the mortally ill and stood up to his captors. Amazingly, he harboured no vindictiveness towards his torturers but worked to promote a spirit of reconciliation after the war ended.

Create a thriving, respectful culture

As Weary Dunlop proved, a thriving culture, irrespective of the stresses it faces, likewise has the opportunity to be ‘a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering’.  All workplaces engender greater respect when achieve the following seven essentials.

1. Acknowledge the situation

There are many ways to do this, but if you’re working in a tough job, why gloss over the realities?  Weary’s words are worth recalling: “I have a conviction that it’s only when you are put at full stretch that you can realise your full potential.

Provided no-one is being exploited on this premise, and people’s responsibilities and accountabilities are transparent and equitably shared, a culture evolves that’s unique to the organisation in question. That’s the beginning of a good team ethos.

2. Be mutually supportive

We’re talking not just emotionally but logistically. Weary gave hope to his fellow prisoners in part because of his medical knowledge and capability — which is why I advocate companies and organisations investing in properly training all employees.  People feeling equipped to carry out their roles are an essential ingredient in the provision of mutual support.  Emotional support is vital, but insufficient when training and capabilities aren’t meshing.  A manager constantly attacking or bullying their staff is recklessly undercutting themselves. Most of us will perform, if thoughtfully-guided and with realistic timelines.

3. Recognise stresses

Today’s workplace is fiercely competitive and tiring, with demanding clients and stakeholders. There is little job security, and many of us don’t make enough to live on and provide for our futures. Knowing this, workplaces can offer mentors, confidential counselling and various wellbeing initiatives (such as flexible hours and schedules) that keep employees healthy and in a position to give their sustained and sustainable best. 

4. Build morale through meaningful communication

For goodness’ sake, don’t go on about how ‘awesome’ someone is, or use performance reviews as your only source of feedback.  Most of us know when we’re being addressed in a hollow or tick-the-box fashion. High-fiving posts on LinkedIn — while good for individual and company shoutouts — will never replace a heartfelt personal message or quiet signalling that someone knows you’ve been doing it tough. Aim for face-to-face communication as much as possible, or phone people — emails and texts have their place, but the spoken word is powerful, as is the action that accompanies it.

5. Civility is a must

Not just in word, but in deed. We must respect our diverse team members, no matter what experience, nationality or background. Nobody wants a person who writes punctilious emails but has body language that spells aggression to anyone who challenges them. That is not someone open to constructive or collegiate discussion. We don’t want team members who interrupt presentations when bored, or give the message non-verbally that ‘this presentation is a waste of (my) time’. Politeness alone doesn’t cut it — civility signifies accepting we encounter a wide variety of people every day and demonstrating a consistent standard of helpfulness, consideration and attentiveness.

6. Treat people as adults

Not everyone appreciates Larry cards to motivate staff! While the office is rather like a family, we are not talking the Brady Bunch complete with ever-understanding mother, father and Alice-like figures. The team is on a perpetual learning trajectory. Every day their combined efforts are fashioning something new. Welcoming everyone’s input, tuning into the different ways they communicate and providing ample credit where and when it’s due, all contribute to enabling respect. An organisation’s internal processes and output needs regular reviewing for consistency and quality, otherwise companies and organisations would have little chance of making it in the marketplace or providing a viable service that others rely on.

7. Know they are interdependent

Employees need leadership but management relies on staff’s coalface knowledge. This produces a delicate but vital balance where trust and respect will only result when each of the stakeholders generates what the other requires. It is, as retired MIT Professor of Organisational Psychology Edgar Schein says, the recognition others know things we may need to know in order to get the job done.  Management needs to instil a culture of confidence and cooperation so employees feel empowered to share information — equally, employees knowing they are respected for what they do will reciprocate in rich measure the respect and trust they are given.

Respect can only be earned — never demanded or commanded.

It might take a while, but the above sets respectful foundations for more satisfied people, together heading in the right direction.

NOW READ: “You can’t copy and paste”: The three steps Canva took to perfect its company culture

NOW READ: Ditching ‘culture fit’: Inclusive culture starts with inclusive hiring, says Atlassian’s Aubrey Blanche

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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