Workplace Culture – Myths and Misconceptions
Workplace culture is commonly understood to refer to the attitudes people exhibit and the way they communicate and get on with each other at work, perhaps categorised simply as “good”, “bad” or even “toxic”. Organisational cultures are often said to be set by leaders, but where “bad” cultures exist the influence of trouble-making employees is to blame. However they are created or defined, outcomes for undesirable workplace cultures commonly include absenteeism, bullying, poor productivity and quality, poor customer care, militancy and conflict. Outcomes from better workplace cultures can be less easily identified (perhaps because people are just getting on with the job), but are perceived to include cooperation, respect, commitment to good work and comfortable workplace relationships.
- A narrow definition of workplace culture – rather than being expressed in a word or two, as a product of complex human social interactions it encompasses the shared values, beliefs and social norms including organisational purpose, responsibility, accountability, quality, integrity, compliance, fairness, rituals, ethnicity, history, legends, ethics, spirituality, appetite for risk, attitudes towards mistakes, innovation and loyalty, as well as the more commonly acknowledged things like how and how often people communicate, collaborate, celebrate and solve problems. Organisational culture is also about more than what goes on inside an organisation – it relates to how the organisational members view customers, environments and their collective place in broader society.
- The idea of a single workplace culture – in reality, where organisational membership is above single digits, there is no one culture that everyone abides by. Organisational cultures consist of the many micro-cultures that exist in individual workgroups and cliques, reflecting the social systems and sub-systems that are linked to all groups of people. Expect each micro-culture to extend to no more than eight or ten people (but more often around five), and that interpersonal cooperation, trust and loyalty within those groups are the strongest that exist in the workplace, shaping powerful beliefs and myths around things such as power, acceptable (or justified) behaviours, fairness and standards.
- That those in leadership roles can set, manage and maintain all aspects of their workplace culture – in reality the culture of any social group is influenced by all members of the group, but most heavily by those perceived to be leaders through respect, behaviour, personality or power*, with others seeking to comply in order to feel accepted. This is especially apparent where workgroup size exceeds eight, resulting in inevitable minor or major divisions that serve to create social sub-sets, each with their own leaders who influence and shape their own micro-cultures. These micro-cultures may be positive or negative in how they assist the organisation in achieving its goals. *Coercive power is an unreliable instrument of influence, as forced compliance commonly leads to disengagement, resentment and the formation of subversive acts and alliances.
It would also be a misconception to feel that this complexity makes it almost impossible to create, support and maintain a helpful workplace culture. Rather, workplace structures and processes can be designed around the naturally social nature of people, including recruitment and management practices that ensure that workplace cultures are largely dominated by the ethics, standards and behaviours that are most appropriate for organisational purpose, goals and values. With this deliberate intent, in the same way that safety, quality or service must be if they are to be successfully implemented, a positive workplace culture can be incorporated into the basic fabric of what organisations do, how and why. These initiatives are crucial for developing and sustaining highly productive, satisfying and safe workplaces.
Mental Health in the Workplace – An Underestimated Influence
Although rarely recognised as important until a serious incident occurs or an official complaint is made, mental safety in the workplace has a substantial influence on employee satisfaction and engagement, with significant impacts on organisational culture, reputation and performance.
The widespread nature of the challenge facing employers and employees is illustrated by research conducted for Beyond Blue titled “State of workplace mental health in Australia” (TNS, 2014). It showed that 91% of Australian employees believe mental health in the workplace is important (versus 88% for physical safety), yet only 52% believe their workplace is mentally safe (versus 76% for physical safety). From that, it is not surprising that only around half (56%) believe their senior leaders care about the mental health of their team. (This isn’t to say that leaders don’t care about the mental state of their employees. Rather it is a reflection on the obvious physical pain, scars and disablement that can arise from workplace accidents or practices in comparison to mental traumas, which can be harder to detect, evaluate and attend to – and are generally a lot more stressful in how they are prevented or managed.)
Unlike physical injuries which can often repair themselves quite quickly with no lasting damage, isolation, bullying and other harmful workplace interactions and stresses activate neurochemical reactions and even physical changes within the brain (Rossouw, 2011) which can shape and scar feelings, thoughts and behaviours well into the future – a phenomenon often manifesting itself as a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The worst, most costly and most morally unacceptable response is to ignore the mental health of employees in the hope that problems are unimportant, made-up, or will resolve themselves or go away on their own. A best-case management plan, beyond prevention, is one where early identification, intervention and remedial action, often involving mediation and/or counselling, is used to resolve causes of mental distress and return employees to healthy states of well-being and productivity.