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Culture is the Key to a Better Workplace

by Dr. Graham Lowe ASEBP Consultant | May 3 2018

Culture is the fuzzy part of any organization. It’s both a puzzle and a paradox. Figuring out the dominant values and unwritten norms that guide every-day behaviour in a workplace can be like solving a puzzle. Paradoxically, this soft underbelly of an organization actually provides the most solid foundation for building a healthier and more productive workplace.

Indeed, healthy workplace research increasingly calls for a culture of health as the key to improving employee well-being. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a culture of health is “a working environment where employee health and safety is valued, supported and promoted through workplace health programs, policies, benefits, and environmental supports.” The practical question then, is how to create this sort of culture in which all employees can thrive. I found some very helpful answers to this question in Deborah Connors’s new book, A Better Place to Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture.  

Extraordinary Workplaces Start with People

Deborah is well known as the inspiration behind the Health Work and Wellness Conference in Canada (later renamed the Better Workplace Conference), which has created an extensive community of practice over the last 17 years. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill workplace wellness conference. Deborah and her team pursued a bold mission for these annual events, “creating extraordinary workplace[s] by developing extraordinary people.” Discussions at the conference shone a spotlight on the critical role that culture plays in successful efforts to make workplaces better. As someone who participated in a number of these conferences, I recall the diversity of approaches that can lead to more positive and supportive culture.

Ask Focused Questions

Anyone interested in improving their workplace is advised to ask a simple yet powerful question: “What will you do differently to create a better place to work?” As a workplace change agent, it’s essential to use this question as an opportunity to think beyond wellness or health promotion programs and resources that focus on individuals. A persistent focus on organizational culture is needed in order to create the enabling conditions for improving workplaces in ways that benefit employees, managers and external stakeholders.

The evidence-based practices recommended can be adapted to any type of organization. Examples are drawn from the conference speakers she interviewed and from a thought exchange process with numerous conference participants. These examples highlight an important consideration for healthy workplace advocates: positive change won’t be successful or sustainable unless you build a culture that supports the change. This point helps to explain why well-intentioned healthy workplace initiatives often fall short of their goals.

No doubt many readers have experienced frustration at how their organization is able to block innovation. To help break out of the status quo, or inertia, that stands in the way of change, you and your work colleagues can start by asking, ‘what new practices can lead to a better future in this workplace?’ Basically, this transformative question helps generate a shared vision that can guide you to co-create change.

Building the Right Kind of Culture

This is an emergent process that participants in the change must trust as they put positive practices in place. For example, Deborah and her conference team agreed upon the ‘creating a better workplace’ vision for the conference. They then collectively created an event that moved far beyond workplace health and wellness. As one of the experts interviewed observes, we need to think of “culture by design as opposed to by default.”

Also useful for workplace change agents is the Be Positive framework for shifting cultures to be more positive and, in this way, supportive of workers’ overall well-being. As a practitioner, I found it helpful that the book’s chapters end with practical activities that can be undertaken by individuals, teams and organizations. The 50 evidence-based practices for building more positive workplace cultures can be widely adapted. As you reflect on specific actions that will improve your own workplace, first try to solve the puzzle of how to cultivate a culture in which everyone can flourish.

Dr. Graham Lowe

Graham is an organizational consultant, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, published author of Redesigning Work, alongside Frank Graves, and well known expert on work issues. Once known by the moniker “The Hound” in his days as a R&B musician in the 1960s, it has now been updated to “Grambo” by his 20-something CrossFit friends as he’s “the old guy who persists.” Despite a long list of personal and professional accomplishments, Graham has been held back by his one fear—of heights when walking along mountain ledges. Baby steps, Graham.