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Dynamic Workplace Culture: A Leader’s Top Asset in Difficult Times

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

In many ways, the COVID era acted as a leadership litmus test. The pandemic forced CEOs and business owners to quickly address unprecedented challenges that lasted much longer than anyone predicted. As the crisis dragged on, many soon realized that tactics that work well when things are going smoothly can be widely ineffective when bad times set in.

Some leaders simply couldn’t handle the seismic swing of the pendulum during the past several years. Consequently, many companies didn’t survive or were significantly impaired. But other leaders were able to not only ride out the pandemic wave but also managed to strengthen their organizations.  

Companies that prevailed had two things going for them:

  • A leadership approach enabling nimble navigation of critical issues
  • A robust workplace culture that fortified the organization

These advantages created the level of resilience companies needed to withstand a two-year health crisis. But the pandemic won’t be the last challenge they face. Other significant hurdles from the economy to the supply chain to the Great Resignation are already impacting the business world. And intuitive leaders who cultivate a strong culture will be in the best position to come out on top.

The Evolution of the CEO

Most business leaders used to adhere to a command-and-control formula that prioritized profits and didn’t have much of an employee focus. But that model began to wear thin over the past several decades as new generations with different perspectives about employment joined the workforce.

Gen Xers, Millennials, and now Gen Z employees entered the work world less willing to tolerate rigid, top-down leadership and expecting more from their jobs. Then the pandemic rolled in and magnified their concerns. In fact, in the last two years, many younger workers didn’t merely resist old leadership structures; they walked away from them.

The generational shift and recent events have convinced an increasing number of leaders that they must embrace new ideas and tactics to attract, retain, and inspire today’s workers. And they realize that they need fresh leadership strategies to help their companies flourish in normal times and withstand crises when they arise.

Employee Engagement 

Most modern leaders recognize that their success hinges on the level of employee engagement in their companies. The extent of that connection drives staff members’ passion for their job and their devotion to quality, service, and productivity. And strong employee engagement builds loyalty and trust—qualities that make people stay on and pull together when times get tough.

Leaders can develop many traits and tactics that will drive employee engagement. Three of the most vital are:

  1. Leading by Example

During a crisis, everyone turns to the leader for reassurance and a path forward. CEOs can’t ask their staff to show courage, tenacity, and adaptability in the face of adversity if they don’t demonstrate these traits themselves. People will stand by leaders who walk the talk and disrespect or even abandon those who behave counter to what they say.

Leaders can cultivate a resilient staff by showing what that looks like in action. This includes keeping perspective, being decisive, persistent, and adaptable, and having a humble, team-first attitude.

  • Establishing Purpose

Beyond making the organization’s purpose clear to their staff, leaders should ensure that their people understand why their professional roles matter. Awareness of how they fit into the big picture becomes even more important to employees when their company is facing adversity. It helps them see how their efforts are helping the business withstand and overcome its challenges and makes them feel less like powerless victims of circumstances.

Leaders can empower their staff by explaining the value of their contributions, how what they do enables their teammates’ success, and why their actions lead to the achievement of overall goals. 

  • Prioritizing Workplace Culture

Great leaders understand that while their prowess is essential, their organizations rise and fall on the strength of their people. A leader’s commitment to building and maintaining an exceptional culture is the most effective way to fortify people’s skills, confidence, work satisfaction, and loyalty.

It’s also critical for leaders to understand that they must intentionally establish a high-performing and supportive culture, not just hope it happens. They need a plan and process to make their culture stick—just like any other important business area. 

The Significance of a Strong Work Culture

Despite numerous definitions and misconceptions, workplace culture can easily be summed up as the behavioral norms within an organization. It’s displayed in each employee’s work ethic, how they collaborate with team members, and how they interact with the public.

Consequently, in tandem with solid leadership, a dynamic culture significantly influences and improves every part of a business. And the old-school holdouts who still value profits over people should know that the quality of their company’s culture has a sizeable impact on the bottom line.

Through luck or favorable timing, a business without a strong culture may be able to maintain profitability for a while. But when the market shifts, the company’s winning streak is unlikely to continue because it lacks a solid culture that will allow it to adjust accordingly. And when disaster strikes, the absence of a cultural infrastructure can be catastrophic.

Some leaders balk at pouring resources into culture-building during a crisis. They can list dozens of concrete areas they think should take priority instead. But the time and money spent to build a solid culture are the wisest investments leaders can make to withstand all the challenges businesses face.

A healthy culture is the foundation for a company’s success; a dysfunctional culture is a recipe for failure.

The Hallmarks of a High-performing Culture

A dynamic culture is reflected in staff behaviors that buoy the organization. To be most effective, leaders should focus on three areas that contribute to organizational success:

  1. Soft Skills
  2. Respect
  3. Accountability
Soft Skills

The ability to perform the technical aspects of a job is only part of an employee’s value to the organization. The rest stems from a polished set of soft skills that are harder to measure but critical to success. These include:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Time Management
  • Responsiveness
  • Attention to Details

Like technical abilities, soft skills take practice and reinforcement to be automatic. The most effective way to help employees develop and hone soft skills is to build behaviors that support them directly into workplace culture. According to SHRM, the best training methods are flexible and frequent, and they recommend a combination of large group training, mentoring programs, and self-guided learning.

Respect

People must feel respected to be able to bring their best selves to work. It’s a broad category that encompasses three crucial areas:

  1. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEIB)
  2. Physical and Mental Health
  3. Psychological Safety
DEIB in the Workplace

Companies today are rightly placing more emphasis on creating balanced teams representing many backgrounds and cultures. But hiring for diversity is not the same as honoring the differences that make people unique. Respect for others’ opinions and contributions, regardless of gender, skin color, sexual orientation, heritage, physical limitations, or age, should be baked into the daily culture.

Leaders should cultivate a zero-tolerance policy for exclusivity and reinforce behaviors that make everyone feel welcomed and valued. Teams won’t thrive without these standards.

Physical and Mental Health

While unexpected turbulence can be hard on every facet of a business, the most significant toll is often on the people trying to hold things together. Ensuring employees’ physical and mental well-being is critical not only for their health, but also for the survival of the organization. Staff members can’t fortify a company in crisis if they are struggling personally.

The universal impact of the pandemic laid bare the individual challenges workers and leaders face. As a result, many companies are now prioritizing mental and physical wellbeing within their organizational culture. In addition to providing more resources for help, they’ve destigmatized discussion about the topics and prioritized compassion as a key mindset among their team members. 

Psychological Safety

The authors of a recent MIT Sloan article define psychological safety as an atmosphere where team members feel like they can say what they think and be themselves. They cited studies such as Project Aristotle at Google and the Art of Teamwork at Microsoft, which demonstrate the importance of psychological safety for team effectiveness, performance, and creativity.

It’s also vital for people to feel like they can be open and honest while the company is weathering turbulent times. Leaders who cultivate an environment where people aren’t afraid to speak foster productive communication. This transparency allows the group to address and respond to issues promptly and gives them the confidence to voice solutions.

Accountability

The behaviors that define a high-performing and resilient culture all hinge on one quality: accountability. Leaders can’t merely introduce the actions and attitudes they want their people to demonstrate. They must also incentivize employees to hold themselves responsible for making them happen every day.

They can achieve this goal by introducing accountability as a positive underpinning of the company’s culture. The key is to empower employees to take ownership of outcomes instead of using accountability as a fear tactic to make them toe the line.

When companies introduce accountability as a valuable part of their culture, it unifies and strengthens the staff. It builds a solution-focused team that can rise to address and overcome challenges. 

The Right Time to Strengthen Culture

Some leaders pivoted to fortify their company’s culture when the pandemic hit. The measures they took helped their organizations weather that storm. But they would have been in a much stronger position to face the crisis if they had made their culture a business priority before the COVID took hold. There are several reasons why leaders failed to do this:

  • They didn’t see the need to spend time on culture when things were going reasonably well
  • They viewed culture as a “soft” area that isn’t as pressing as the concrete aspects of their business

These are logical points of view, but they’re shortsighted. The best time for leaders to work on their company’s culture isn’t while reacting to a pressing challenge. Instead, they should discern what kind of culture will lift their organizations under any conditions and develop a plan to create that environment now. The resources allotted to building culture are the best investment leaders can make.