At the same time, it’s not just how we work that’s shifted, but working relationships, too. A Willis Towers Watson survey found that more than half the respondents saw rising stress and burnout. Additionally, HR software firm Motivosity found that two-thirds of employees surveyed said the pandemic had negatively affected their working relationship with their boss.
Consequently, making an effort to keep employees engaged and rebuild relationships is crucial. Central to this is determining whether your organisation’s culture is helping or hindering this process.
Culture influences behaviour quickly
When you enter a new work environment, you quickly learn the accepted way to behave. Behaviour that appears not in line with the so-called accepted culture can be shunned and ridiculed.
We see this at play in the animal kingdom as well. In the early 1970s, primatologist Hans Kummer worked in Ethiopia with two baboon species. The first were Savanna baboons, which live in large troops. The other species were Hamadryas baboons, who have a more complex and multi-level society. When confronted with a threatening male, the females from the two species reacted differently: a Hamadryas baboon placated the male by approaching him, whereas a Savanna baboon would run away to avoid injury.
Kummer took a female from each group and released them into the other tribe in his experiment. He found that, initially, the two females carried out their species-typical behaviour. But the socialisation to the accepted way of behaving was swift – about an hour.
While the workplace is different from the jungle (or so we hope), and we are a different species, there’s no doubt that this process of what I term ‘culturalisation’ happens frequently.
As tribal creatures, sadly, we quickly categorise people who don’t conform to what we deem as the accepted way of behaving. We send signals – sometimes subtly and other times explicitly – to express our thoughts about the person’s behaviour. So much so that, over time, they learn the way they need to show up and what they need to do to fit in and be part of the culture. This organic approach to culture isn’t good for them, you or the workplace.
The problem with letting organisational culture grow organically is that it doesn’t create a workplace based on belonging – where people are valued for their uniqueness, and different needs are accepted.
As tribal creatures, we are genetically wired to be part of a group. To survive, we need to feel like we belong, and being part of a team is good for us. It can also motivate us to go beyond what we think is possible.
In his book, Emotional Success, American psychologist and author David DeSteno explains how being part of a team – even a team made up of strangers – can lead people to persevere longer than when they aren’t part of a team.
He recounts a study by Stanford psychologists Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen that examined this. In their research, Walton and Cohen used students as the study participants. DeSteno wrote, “Knowing they (the students) were part of something – having a goal that they knew was shared by a group and to which they could contribute and be valued – pushed people to work hard and resist immediate pleasures.”
Teams are created on this premise that we can achieve more together than alone. I’ve frequently seen how ideas by one person are improved by another and how we generate, debate, and secure our best ideas when we are in a group. Often, it’s when we come together that we perform our best.
When you reflect on the past two years and ask people what they miss when working from home, it’s not the commute or the need to get dressed up. What they miss are the connections and interactions. The banter, the laughs, the conversations with their friends at work. The opportunity to come together and create, design, and debate ideas.
Bringing belonging and meaning to the work we do matters, so paying attention to how your team forms and connects is critical. You are consciously creating the culture that enables you and your team to be their best by taking this approach.
Good culture is deliberate
Organisational culture is essentially the collective behaviour patterns of people at work.
One of the world’s leading culture experts, Edgar Schein, defines it this way: “Culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.”
Having an effective culture takes time and effort. It starts with identifying the current state and detailing the desired future state. From there, you can determine the gap and institute the steps needed to secure the optimal team culture.
Remember, when you are immersed in the organisation’s culture, you can easily overlook the negative impacts the culture is having because, for you, it’s just ‘the way things are done around here’.
It’s essential, therefore, to dig into the culture and be open to seeing and hearing from your colleagues and team members what’s working and not working.
Build daily practices
Changing culture doesn’t happen overnight. It is built over time, slowly. Consequently, your action plan needs a long-term focus, and you will want to have activities happening continuously. The best progress is secured when you are deliberate and consistent in your actions.
As part of team meetings, you can use reflective practices to identify where and how people have progressed. Also, establish core rituals in the team where members are encouraged to focus on what they can do for others and share lessons, opportunities and challenges.
A crucial part of this is cultivating an environment where relationships matter. To make this happen, embrace the opportunity for you to lead by example. Perhaps you can ring team members and colleagues and find genuine ways to connect and devote time to strengthening and building relationships every day.
Above all else, make the connections at work meaningful and help your team find the work they do meaningful.
Work with your team’s strengths
People are more engaged at work and more motivated to do their best when using their strengths.
Research conducted over the last 30 years shows that taking a strengths-based approach leads to greater work satisfaction, engagement, and productivity. Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, in their book, Strengths Based Leadership, detail how working with strengths helps leaders be more productive.
Leaders play a crucial role in bringing strengths to life at work – for themselves and their team members. It starts with the leader understanding their own strengths and using them at work.
The next step is for the leader to help their team members appreciate the strengths they bring to their role and recognise and value their colleagues’ strengths, too.
When your team uses their strengths, individually and collectively, it contributes to a sense of progress, elevates connection and has a positive impact on the team’s culture.
Think long term, not short term
The last couple of years have been challenging for many people on many fronts. So, as you work to rebuild your team’s connections and elevate its culture, it’s essential to recognise the emotional load that many of your group may be carrying.
At the moment, more than ever, it’s critical to encourage your team members to manage their energy and give themselves time to rest, reflect and recharge. To make sustained progress and have a healthy and thriving culture, you will want to ensure your health and wellbeing, and your team members’, come along for the ride.