Soft Skills for Successful Leaders and Strong Workplace Cultures
Workplace culture. It’s one of those business buzzwords that gets tossed around casually. Everyone kind of knows what it means but no one knows where it comes from or how to get the one they want. There’s a definitive link between successful leaders and strong workplace cultures. YOU decide what the culture will be, and your actions and soft skills can bring it to life.
Workplace Culture: What It Is Any Way?
Workplace culture is:
- Felt and experienced by all members of the group, even if they can’t explain or define it
- Learned by group members as they adapt to it
- Based on a set of underlying beliefs and values
- Observable to an outsider
- Influential on the behaviors and choices group members make
- Difficult (but not impossible) to change
- Positive for a group when stable; stressful for a group when in flux or poorly defined
- The “personality” of the workplace
- Important to the success of a business (Deloitte study)
- Determined by group members if not deliberately determined by leadership
One of the leading authorities on organizational culture, Edgar Schein, defines it as a series of assumptions people make about the group and environment. These assumptions are based on experiences and observations, espoused beliefs and values, and basic underlying beliefs that are shared among group members. Most elements of a workplace culture are difficult to articulate or pinpoint. They exist and are taken for granted in the day-to-day work, but they are not called out and affixed to a deliberate definition.
One of the simplest definitions is that culture is “the way we do things around here.”
Most speak of culture in sweeping terms like “positive culture” or “sales culture” or “top-down culture.” Digging deeper to define the desired culture will help you understand, articulate, shape, and sustain the culture you want in your workplace. To do this, there are five aspects of the culture to consider. Ask yourself these questions to get a handle on your existing culture. You can use these same questions to envision the ideal culture and ways to create it.
1. Politics and Power
- Who makes decisions? Is decision-making distributed or tightly centralized? Do folks at the frontline have decision authority in the work they do? How do people earn decision rights? Do the people affected by decisions routinely participate in those decisions?
- How hierarchical is the organization? Is it okay for people to talk to the boss’s boss? Or do they need to follow the chain of command?
- Do managers get things done through authority or influence? Does it feel like managers operate with a philosophy of “command and control” or “heart and soul” as they interact with their direct reports? Do people do things because they have to or because they want to? Is there a lot of micro-managing or do people work autonomously?
- Which of these power typologies best defines your culture: autocratic, paternalistic, consultative, participative, delegative, or abdicative? What actions of managers express this typology?
- How are offices positioned and set up? Are the executives on a different floor or in large, corner offices or in some other way isolated from others? Are 1-to-1 meetings held with a subordinate sitting across the desk from a manager? Are there gatekeepers who control access to the calendars and interactions with senior managers?
2. Achievement Orientation
- What does success look like? What is celebrated?
- How do people on the frontline know what matters to the executive team? In what ways are their work linked to the strategic plan? How often do they hear about milestone achievements or setbacks along the way?
- How important is “winning” vs. the competition? Are there contests, high-profile events, metrics, or other indicators of public wins? How are these communicated internally? What are people expected to do so they help the company to win?
- Are there internal awards and incentives for achievement? What do people need to do in order to earn these rewards?
- If someone is not contributing to company achievements, what is the penalty? Is it okay to do your own work and mind your own business? Or is it important to visibly participate in achievement-oriented activities?
3. The Driving Why
- What is the purpose of the team or organization? Is there a company mission statement that is used for more than “words on a wall” décor? Does the company have a vision?
- How unified are people, at all levels and in all departments, when it comes to knowing and passionately pursuing this central purpose?
- Do KPIs and feedback support the primary purpose of the organization? Are annual goals for individuals linked to the company’s mission and/or vision?
- Do managers inspire others by referencing the central purpose or is the focus on work tasks without that context?
- Do employees believe that the work they do contributes to something larger?
4. Procedures, Policies and Permissions
- Are things done “by the book” with rigorous standards for compliance? Are there step-by-step processes that must be adhered to and documented? Or is it okay to do the work as one pleases, so long as it gets done?
- In what ways are people encouraged to take measured risks and experiment? Is it okay to “fail forward” and learn from making mistakes? What happens if someone tries an innovative new approach but it doesn’t work out as planned?
- When a change is introduced, how swiftly is it adopted and implemented? What real or perceived barriers are there to ushering in changes to processes and practices? How resistant are people to change and why?
- How many policies are in place and enforced? Is there a written dress code? Are work hours flexible? Are there unwritten rules about how people are to conduct themselves in meetings with senior executives or others? How casual or how informal are the policies that everyone adheres to? What happens if someone violates these policies?
- Do all members of the management team support corporate policies and practices? Or is there an undertone of “corporate said” that implies a manager would do things differently if given an option?
5. People Dynamics
- Which is valued more: individual goals are reached or team goals are reached? What happens if individuals meet their personal targets but the team does not meet its goals? Vice versa? Do people compete with each other or rally together so everyone succeeds?
- How social is the workplace? Do people smile and greet one another in the shared spaces of your workplace? Do people have a sense of belonging? Are their friendships that extend beyond work hours? Do employees have others they can turn to for support and back up that isn’t mandated? Do people seem genuinely interested in and supportive of co-workers?
- Are there informal events like potlucks or birthday observations coordinated mainly by frontline contributors? Do people carpool or eat lunch together? Do colleagues know about others’ hobbies and interests outside of work?
- How effective is communication and collaboration? Do people understand how the work they do affects others? Are handoffs smooth? When problems surface, are people able to discuss the situation and resolve the problem without management intervention? Are there simmering issues, cliques, us/them mentalities, or other conflicts that affect morale?
- Do people feel respected and valued? Are their ideas taken into consideration? When they have questions, do they get quick answers and the support they need to get back on track?
Questions like these will help you get clarity about your workplace culture today. They will also equip you to make changes and shape the culture you would like to see in your workplace.
Where Does Workplace Culture Come From?
Workplace culture comes from the people in the workplace. It can be formed on purpose be the managers and executive team. Or, if managers and executives do not deliberately attend to the culture, it will be formed by other members of the team.
In many organizations, the culture is a carryover from the founder. When these companies were still small, the founder was “larger than life” and had a strong influence on culture. The founder hired people who shared his or her values and vision. They were all unified and mobilized by what they were creating. Their enthusiasm and dedication was contagious as they hired others and built out the team. The founder, in a small organization, likely played an active role and was visible. Others emulated what they saw in the founder.
As companies grow, the culture evolves. Strong, successful leaders pay attention to shaping the culture. They are mindful about codifying values and setting mission and vision. As the company expands, they preserve the culture by setting standards and, more importantly, by setting an example.
Over time, in larger organizations, sub-cultures emerge. The sales team, for example, might have a sub-culture focused on achievement and customer satisfaction with a high degree of both internal and external interaction. By contrast, the engineering or IT team might have a sub-culture focused on product development and continual improvement with little internal or external interaction.
Left unchecked, sub-cultures can supplant the overarching company culture. If there are more differences than similarities, two departments can begin to look like two entirely different companies. When this happens, it can be confusing to employees and the source of inter-departmental conflict.
A management team that is intentional leverages shared values, norms, mission, vision, practices, history and more to solidify cultural commonalities. They don’t allow culture fragmentation or siloed sub-cultures.
Cultures and sub-cultures can co-exist so long as the sub-culture is subservient to the company culture. Alignment is essential. It happens when senior executives are strong enough and intentional enough to set and sustain a culture that cascades into sub-cultures. Alignment won’t happen if senior managers abdicate this responsibility and allow pop-up sub-cultures to form independently just to fill that void.
When there is a lack of clarity about company culture, managers must step in to – at a minimum – shape the culture for their own team. Cultures that are a haphazard byproduct of team members’ own experiences usually result in confusion and low levels of employee engagement. That’s because every employee brings in experiences from somewhere else and, in the absence of a clear culture, will continue doing what they did elsewhere. Culture clash happens when there isn’t a unified, clear culture.
Who’s Responsible for Workplace Culture?
Ideally, senior executives take responsibility and define the company culture. They don’t delegate this to the HR team and appoint them as “Culture Keepers” or “Stewards of the Culture.” Instead, they see this as an important part of their own job AND an important part of everyone else’s job, too.
Being responsible for the culture includes:
- Defining the culture and “how we do things around here.”
- Talking about the culture openly and proudly.
- Celebrating culture in ways that draw others in.
- Making culture a positive differentiation that can even be used to attract and retain talent.
- Being a role model who operates in alignment with the professed values underlying the culture.
- Evaluating business decisions with the culture in mind.
- Explaining decisions and changes in the context of the culture.
Managers are also responsible for workplace culture. Each manager has daily opportunities to affirm the culture through their actions and decisions. As sub-cultures form, managers must maintain alignment with the company culture. When people are hired, onboarding should include a thorough representation of “how we do things around here.” Offering contextualized feedback and recognition can undergird the culture. If a manager says “We appreciate the way you handled that customer complaint because it showed how committed we are to quality…” it affirms a culture and company that is quality-driven. It means more than simply saying “Nice job handling that customer complaint.”
Individual employees are also responsible, in another way, for workplace culture. Finding a culture that fits your personal values and belief system will make you happier at work. Railing against a culture that isn’t a good match is a losing battle unless that culture is so weak or fragmented that you, alone, can influence it. What’s more likely to happen is that you will find yourself constantly at odds with the norms, practices, assumptions, beliefs, and day-to-day activities of others.
No matter what your job role, you also have a responsibility once you’ve landed in a company where the culture makes sense to you and fits your own values. In this situation, your responsibility is to continually uphold the culture. That doesn’t mean you should automatically fight for the status quo. It means that change and innovations you introduce should be in service of that culture or considerate of how changes to that culture will impact others over the long term. It means you respect the culture and understand its power to unify and influence your colleagues and customers.
Soft Skills for Successful Leaders and Strong Workplace Cultures
Successful leaders (at any level) shape and support workplace culture. They don’t do this through rules and authority. They do it through conscious, consistent attention to the culture. They do it by aligning their actions with their professed company values and beliefs about the company’s mission and vision. And they do it by demonstrating soft skills that draw others into the culture instead of relying on hard skills alone.
As we’ve discussed throughout The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills for Managers, a manager who demonstrates soft skills boosts employee engagement levels. That includes creating emotional connections that lead to employees exerting additional discretional effort to their work. Emotional connections come from feeling a sense of belonging and a sense of satisfaction at work. Workplace culture makes that possible.
In an atmosphere of tension or an environment that’s confusing or constantly changing, no one can feel attached or settled. It’s difficult to feel satisfied if you don’t know what to expect or if you don’t know, day to day, how you fit in. An established culture yields comfort and predictability.
The bare minimum soft skills required for both successful leaders and strong workplace cultures include:
Clear communication about the culture.This includes articulating the right results AND the right way to achieve those results. It also includes giving feedback when cultural norms are violated and there’s a negative impact on others. Similarly, publicly recognizing positive examples of choices that reinforce and exemplify the culture is important, too. Strong communication skills will also be necessary for leaders who are reshaping the culture or introducing changes to the culture. People may resist any changes that shift the culture, even if the shift is a positive one.
Collaboration to build bridges between sub-cultures.As different as two divisions or departments may be, inside one organization they should be unified by company culture and a shared purpose. Navigating the differences to find similarities and stay aligned may require finesse in negotiation and conflict management. There may be some walls to break down. Critical thinking may also be require for seeing others’ perspectives and understanding their needs.
The emotional intelligence to “read” the culture.Before you can define it and become international about it, you’ll have to discern what it is. Observing objectively, without judgment, is the first step. Then you’ll need to understand why things are the way they are and what the culture produces. For example, a top-down and results-oriented culture can produce risk avoidance and suppress innovation. It can also produce high levels of efficiency and strong results (at least in the short term). Know the pros and cons before you make changes. Understand, too, how people will be impacted.
If you’re not sure what the culture of your workplace is, you might also benefit from bringing in a neutral outsider. Getting a culture overview from someone with no personal stake can be very enlightening and helpful. If your organization has never gone through the exercise of crafting a mission statement, developing a vision that inspires others, and choosing primary corporate values, this is the first step to take. From there, you’ll want to shape a culture with mission, vision and values embedded in all you do. People First Productivity Solutions provides consulting and coaching to carry you through this process, one that will transform your organization and set you up for long-term success.