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How to nurture a healthy culture in your business

Those who regularly read my posts will know I've spent the last few weeks on the road, presenting at the AdviceTech event series. Over that time I've had numerous conversations with advisers and a common theme started to emerge: how to cultivate a healthy corporate culture, or leave a toxic one behind.

Healthy, confident teams are vital to the success of any business. Research shows happy workers are 12% more productive that your average worker. It follows that the culture of a business can have a profoundly positive effect on productivity, whereas a toxic environment can dramatically affect your employees' physical and mental wellbeing.

A few advisers I reconnected with this month said they left the firm they had worked for to either start up on their own or to join somewhere new because of a toxic workplace culture.

Forever curios, I asked what they meant by 'toxic'. One said:

"I loved the work that I was doing, I found it easy and enjoyable. It was the politics and negative energy in the office that got me down. It felt like the culture was broken."

A toxic culture will lead smart, highly capable people to leave a business. Not because of the work itself or their compensation package, but because they grow tired of 'swimming through wet cement' every day (I love that metaphor, it creates such a strong visual image).

They end up at a point where they ask "Why am I killing myself? No one appreciates what I am doing. Things aren't likely to improve." And out the door they walk.

I recently came across an article on how to spot a toxic workplace culture. The signs included:

» No comradery. People don't communicate, don't smile, don't joke and don't reinforce one another. Interactions are more formal than friendly and people don't appear to be happy working there.

» Title and status take centre stage. People are highly concerned about titles, job descriptions and levels in the hierarchy. This is apparent when you meet someone new in the business and they are quick to tell you their title and status. This 'power' has become more important than the mission they're supposedly pursuing.

» Rules, rules, rules. Rules and policies have become more important than the good judgment of colleagues, their combined decades of experience or the nature of the issue at hand. Everyone fears getting in trouble for breaking the rules, so they keep their heads down and try not to step out of line.

» A clear divide. Managers and employees form two distinctly separate groups, which seldom interact. When they do interact, it's a one-way communication where the manager tells the underling what to do. There's no other give-and-take or collaboration between management and the broader team.

» Good people go quiet. This one needs no further explanation...

» Triumphs without celebration. Attention is focused on infractions or mistakes, while triumphs and extraordinary effort go unnoticed.

» Things are getting ridiculous. People are presented with impossible goals, ridiculous plans or patently stupid ideas that they are expected to implement, and yet they don't speak up at work. They do, however, use the content as conversation fodder to complain (or laugh) with their friends after hours.

» The informal grapevine prospers. The informal grapevine is far more effective than any type of official business communication.

» Fear is palpable. Everybody is concerned with their spot on the firm's constantly-shifting, internal stock index. They ask one another "Does the big boss like me? What did he/she say about me?". Senior management constantly jockey for position - no one is safe and everyone is on edge.

Probably the most common sign of a toxic work environment is one where there is no community. The few people who laugh and joke together get suspicious sideways glances from those who are too afraid to let their hair down. Outspoken employees and non-traditional thinkers don't last long - they get disgusted and leave or they're invited to leave when their style clashes with the status quo.


Create a culture your team will love

According to research by Deloitte, 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct corporate culture is important to a business’ success. Deloitte’s survey also revealed a strong correlation between employees who claim to feel happy and valued at work, and those who say their company has a strong culture.

So, how can you build (or rebuild, as the case may be) your corporate culture?

» Lead by example. Be the leader you would want to follow. Be there to support your team. Don't be afraid to have open, honest conversations and take time to build trust. This study revealed that more than a third of UK employees didn’t trust their leaders because they saw them as self-centred. While a further 59% cited lack of support as a reason for their distrust.

» Invest in employee health and wellbeing. Employees need to feel their best - physically, mentally and emotionally - in order to contribute to a positive culture. Give your employees the resources, tools and healthcare opportunities they need to live their healthiest life, inside and outside the office.

» Don't leave your dirty dishes in the sink. This metaphor means not leaving a mess for someone else to clean. Ensure team members provide a proper handover on projects and are respectful of their colleagues' time.

» Treat problems as opportunities. When problems arise and emotions are high, encourage your team to view it as an opportunity to reflect, analyse and evaluate so that next time you will do better. Bringing perspective to a stressful situation and making your team smile can quickly lighten a very emotionally charged room.

» Be consistent. There are many new trends in company culture: flexible working hours, wellbeing programmes, team building activities and collaborative workspaces. Cooper Parry Wealth, winner of numerous Best Place to Work awards, has the funkiest offices I've ever seen, offers unlimited time off and imposes an email curfew. Hearing about initiatives like this it's easy to be tempted to try to replicate what others are doing. However, the same tactics won't work for every company. Ask your team what they most value and then implement it consistently - don't be distracted by the latest professional culture craze.

I hope you find these tips helpful. Remember, building a healthy and happy workplace culture takes time. The starting point is a recognition that there is a problem and then acting swiftly to address it. That is, if you want to avoid seeing your best people pack their bags and head for the nearest exit.


This article was originally created for the DISCUS website (Discretionary Investment Services Coming Under Scrutiny), an information resource for financial advisers interested in outsourced investing. The weekly DISCUS newsletter became Embark News on 31 October 2019.

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