Here’s how to keep a positive work culture

Recently, the popular luggage company, Away, made headlines after an investigation resulted in employees coming forward to reveal its toxic social environment.  The growth-at-all-costs mentality resulted in burnout, humiliation and a miserable place to work.

While some speculate that a leadership change was in the works for months, just days after the report was made public, CEO and Co-founder Steph Korey stepped down after Slack messages humiliating employees were leaked. While it’s shocking to see one of our favorite Instagram Brands get hit with a “Toxic Culture” label, our own organizations aren’t immune to cultivating a toxic culture. Some of us may have experienced a toxic culture first hand or dealt with unethical bosses.

How can we as leaders prevent a toxic culture?

Psychological Safety

In an environment where competition can breed a win-by-any-means-necessary mentality, employees can become fearful of sticking their neck out to propose a new idea, provide feedback and even question a supevisor’s or colleague’s actions. 

At Away, long hours were expected and employees were discouraged to take paid-time off. But a small group of Away employees created a private Slack channel that allowed them to air their grievances. A tool that is meant for transparency seemed to be the only outlet where employees felt they could express their thoughts. And it eventually led to the crisis that publically labeled their culture as toxic. 

In contrast, ethical leaders create an environment where ideas are welcomed and feedback is received without the employee feeling that there will be repercussions. 

Extreme Ownership 

Leaders praise accountability in the workplace as a way to make sure that leaders are responsible for their actions. Jocko Willink, former Navy Seal and management consultant, takes this a step further by implementing Extreme Ownership. Extreme ownership is when a leader doesn’t wait for external forces to hold them accountable, but instead proactively owns the problem and the responsibility that comes with it.

An Ethical Leader starts with humility when facing a problem and approaches it with a sense of curiosity by asking clarifying questions such as, “What role did I play in this?” or “At what point could this have been prevented?” By being open to constructive feedback from colleagues, an ethical leader can now move forward with developing a solution in a collaborative way. 

Radical Transparency

 In his book “Principles,” author and hedge fund manager Ray Dalio discusses the value of Radical Transparency as a way to build meaningful relationships within teams.

When an organization is in crisis mode, some leaders default to withholding information from their employees in an effort to avoid panic. However, as we all may have experienced in the workplace, information gets out and stories start to formulate that may or may not be accurate. This is challenging for a leadership team to manage as employees start to formulate opinions based on the limited information that they receive. In order to prevent this from occurring, radical transparency requires radical truthfulness. It allows everyone on the team to understand why specific decisions are being made and why certain actions have taken place. This also helps stop a false narrative from spreading and can prevent a situation from getting out of control.

Authentic Communication

 Ethical leaders want to get to the root of an issue and whether or not they agree with an outcome or opinion, they make an honest attempt at understanding their “why.” Mindful listening is a great exercise to help leaders build empathy and creates space for others to share their thoughts and feel that their voices matter. When provided with the opportunity, leaders should hold back from trying to justify or defend their actions, but rather listen intently to how their actions affected the employees. Trust is necessary for psychological safety and is built during authentic communication. 

The events that transpired at Away are unfortunate. While they may recover from a bruised brand and even continue to financially succeed, organizations like Away can have a powerful influence over how people can expect to be treated in the workplace. 

A toxic culture won’t last after employee turnover, public reputation and lack of leadership begin to take its toll on the organization. Eventually, its story will come to an end. However, this is all preventable. Understanding your role in developing the organization’s culture and implementing these practices can lead to achieving the organization’s winning aspiration without having your employees packing their bags and finding their nearest exit.

Jaime L. Arroyo is a managing partner at Work Wisdom LLC in Lancaster. 

Ok, your workplace is diverse, but are you inclusive?

Many of our Central PA businesses can point to their diverse hiring initiatives or how they provide regular diversity training to their employees, however, I think about a compelling question that a good friend of mine, Romeo Azondekon, vice president of Student Services at Central Penn College, once asked me: “Who are in your small rooms?”

Throughout my career, as a young professional, diversity and inclusion have been a constant theme in the workplace. I started my career in banking by receiving a Diversity Scholarship award and I spent years working with under-represented entrepreneurs to create a more equitable economy in Lancaster County. Now, working with organizational leaders to create a more equitable culture, we are finding our workforce to be more diverse than ever but not necessarily inclusive.

What Romeo meant by that powerful question is “who are the people in your organization that are making strategic decisions?” Are they reflective of the stakeholders you serve? Many organizations are satisfied with their frontline employees being diverse and reflective of their customers. They may hire a bilingual employee who is able to engage with their Spanish-speaking clients. However, that isn’t a truly inclusive workplace. As we look at the major functions of our business, from finance to marketing, who is carrying out the vision? And do we invite our employees who may offer a different perspective based on their unique background to give valuable insight into a new project, marketing campaign or product?

In order for us as managers and executives to truly be inclusive leaders, we must enhance our own self-awareness through what author, Jennifer Brown, calls the Inclusive Leader Continuum. The ILC is the idea that when it comes to inclusion all leaders are either unaware, aware, active, or an advocate. 

Unaware. Unaware leaders conduct business as usual. They make claims that they don’t hire based on color or gender, but rather on performance. These types of leaders are unaware of their own biases.

Aware. Aware leaders know that their workforce isn’t representative of their stakeholders and may be aware of their own bias. However, they have not taken any action to make changes. 

Active. Active leaders are aware of their bias and that they can be more inclusive. They have taken action to hire outside of their network and provide training to their employees.

Advocate. Leaders who act as advocates strive to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace by understanding their implicit bias and raising their awareness of fairness within the organization. They update their policies and procedures to reflect fair hiring practices and pay transparency. Advocates provide career development opportunities that are inclusive, and they find a path from the frontline to leadership within the organization.

Being an inclusive leader makes your organization stronger, faster and better. Not only does inclusivity build the bottom line, but it increases creativity and employees are more engaged during the work day. This leads to better customer service and decreases employee turnover.

The Gap Inc. has seen a resurgence in the retail industry after not only purchasing popular B Corp brands such as Athleta and Hill City, but also by investing in diversity and inclusion. The Gap Inc has rolled out unconscious bias training, created a mentoring program for next-gen leaders, and in 2018 signed the Open to All Business Pledge to reaffirm that their workplace is safe and welcoming to all. If you’re looking for a way for your organization to have a competitive advantage, inclusive leadership is a great place to start. 

Jaime L. Arroyo is a managing partner at Work Wisdom LLC in Lancaster. 

The Behaviorist: Time off is not time wasted

I am a little bit embarrassed to tell you that I took six weeks off. A six-week sabbatical with my husband – reading, writing, resting, reflecting, relaxing, drinking wine and coffee, enjoying the sunshine and some exercise, and sometimes doing nothing at all.

I am embarrassed because I recognize the rarity of taking this kind of time. Talking about it at all feels boastful and a bit millennial. Even as I type this, I can picture my step-dad rolling his eyes and wondering how on earth anyone can ride off into the sunset for six weeks and have a job to come back to at all.

And while I am incredibly grateful for a team that supported my request to tag along on my husband’s sabbatical, I don’t believe that my experience should be rare or embarrassing. We need to begin embracing a culture that supports this kind of time to disconnect. I have been more productive in the month since returning from my own sabbatical than I was in the previous six months combined and there is a slew of research which proves that time spent away from the office is good for individuals, for families, for the economy, and for business.

‘Always on’

I spend most of my time at the office surrounded by well-being research and working with stressed out high-achievers juggling ever growing to-do lists. I’m sure they would all love nothing more than to take my advice and drive off for some fun in the sun.

However, most also feel a strong sense of responsibility toward the people who work for them, the boards to whom they report and the impact they would like to achieve. Many find these responsibilities incompatible with extended breaks. Vacation is viewed as a luxury, making both leadership and staff hesitant to use paid time off.

This is generally true across the country. Americans take significantly less vacation than the rest of the developed world. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four weeks of paid vacation each year, and the average worker in France takes 30 days annually. Europe recognizes a value in vacation that we have not yet embraced. Here, where the average private sector worker earns just 16 paid vacation and holidays per year, individuals are using less and less of their allocated time over the last 15 years.

According to a study by Project: Time Off, in 2015 over half of working Americans with paid vacation did not use it all. This cultural tone is often set at the very top. According to Emma Seppala of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, 84 percent of executives in the U.S. report having cancelled vacations in order to work.

Unfortunately, this “always-on” mentality may be doing more harm than good. In addition to increasing rates of individual stress, burnout and strain on families, unused vacation time costs U.S. businesses $224 billion annually, and can unintentionally reduce overall productivity itself.

‘Take a vacation’

As I have studied workplace well-being, I have seen more and more research pointing to the benefits of time off, not only for the individual, but as an essential foundation for many of the highest-performing organizations. The research reveals that time spent away and disconnected from the office, leads to increases in dedication, enthusiasm, performance, stamina and creativity, as well as improved health (and thus fewer future absences). Our now largely knowledge-based economy requires this type of clear, energized and creative mind. Success in this type of economy is fueled by the very things that vacation provides.

A study featured in the Harvard Business Review in 2016 came to this same conclusion. According to the author, “statistically, taking more vacation results in greater success at work as well as lower stress and more happiness at work and home.”

In fact, the report found that workers who took more than 10 days of their vacation allowance per year, compared with those who took less than 10, were more than 30 percent more likely to receive a raise or bonus within a three-year period. Other research utilizing brain imaging has found that doing nothing for a period of time increases alpha waves in the brain that are necessary for creativity, insight and innovation. In another study of 13,000 middle-aged men, those who skipped vacation for five consecutive years were 30 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who took at least one week per year.

A separate study of working fathers found that 37 percent of them would consider taking a new job with less pay if it offered more work-life balance. Thus, organizations that value vacation are likely to benefit through lower turnover rates, fewer absences, and increased innovation, all of which positively impact the bottom line.

Take the time

My advice? Take a vacation. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be whatever sounds restful and meaningful to you. Go camping, travel, visit family or friends, sit on the beach, or run a marathon. But turn off your phone, put an away message on your email, and disconnect from your everyday patterns. Rest. Read. Write. Move. Sit. Recover. And come back rejuvenated, energized and passionate for the work that you do.

If you are a CEO, owner or manager, spend time intentionally crafting wise PTO policies that prioritize rest and recovery. Show your teams that you value this time and set the cultural tone by using the policies yourself. Come back with fresh eyes and new ideas. You won’t regret it, and neither will your organization.

Kate Coleman is an associate at Work Wisdom LLC, a consulting firm in Lancaster. She focuses on preventing and managing stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. She can be reached at [email protected].