It’s not unusual for Amazon to be in the headlines, but this past summer the online retail juggernaut took the heat in addition to the spotlight when current and former employees outed its “bruising” corporate culture. Getting a glimpse of what it’s like to be an Amazonian captured the public’s interest because it offered a peek into what makes the extremely successful company tick (or perhaps “click,” in this case), but it also resonated because corporate, or organizational, culture is a shared and important experience for anyone who is employed — and it can be the difference between a healthy or toxic workplace.
Corporate, or organizational, culture is a combination of many elements, such as language, stories, behavior, norms, rituals, and traditions. Does your company expect that things are done a certain way? Are there words and statements which seem unique to your organization? Does the boss's staff meeting always occur on the same day and time on a regular basis? Are there specific stories in the organization which seem to get told over and over about the good old days? If so, these are all examples of organizational culture.
Signs of a Healthy Organizational Culture
Even if your company has never appeared on Fortune magazine’s annual “Best Companies to Work For” list, it could be fostering a healthy corporate culture if you can answer in the affirmative to many of the following questions.
- Do the people you work with as a whole seem energized, friendly, and in good spirits?
- Is there a feeling of collaboration versus competition between people?
- Are people given opportunities to develop?
- Are people treated fairly?
- Are people open?
- Can you easily speak to anyone in the organization?
- Are there few rules and guidelines for how you do your work?
- Does the organization share all news and business progress with everyone on a consistent basis?
Indicators of a Toxic Workplace
On the flipside, here are several indicators of an unhealthy work culture:
- Is there a system of competition between people so there are winners and losers?
- Is there an annual performance review versus just ongoing open positive oriented feedback?
- Does Human Resources operate more like the police versus an enabling resource?
- Is there an overemphasis on individual rewards and punishment?
- Is there an emphasis on compliance versus cooperation?
- Does the environment seem closed when it comes to communications?
- Are suggestions and open dialog not welcome?
- Are people not included or appreciated?
- Does the environment seem more like a job prison than a thriving open system?
The Source — and Downside — of a Negative Culture
Which factors influence organizational cultures to be healthy versus unhealthy? An organization whose sole aim is to increase profits one quarter over the next can bring out the worst in its people. Greed, internal negative politics, arrogance, and self-serving agendas can create unhealthy work cultures. These cultures create competition between people where employees are treated as resources to be used up instead of people to be appreciated and nurtured. From a systems view this seems rather silly. You need not look farther than the natural world for an example: It’s easy to see that we have finite resources on this planet we call our collective home, and when they are used up, they are gone forever. Likewise when organizations place profit over people, everyone in the end loses. The race to the top to be the best, the strongest, the smartest, and the fastest can all contribute to unhealthy work cultures. This sadly has a negative impact to society beyond the workplace walls, which can be measured in unhappiness, relationships problems, and illness.
It’s better to produce products or services that contribute to society. These are the healthier cultures which both show profit and produce value for society. Sadly, there are many organizations which, in the race for growth, continue to create products and or services which create little societal value. An example of this is a silly mobile game application that attempts to go public, making billions for early investors. All of this devalues products and/or services which can create long-term benefit to society. With so many challenges such as housing, crime, cost of education, food, and basic living needs, we need more focus in the areas which impact greater numbers of people. In these types of work cultures where there is deeper meaning and purpose in work, people are both treated better and they find more fulfillment in what they do. This feeling of contribution enables positive self-worth and a healthy organizational culture.
"In these types of work cultures where there is deeper meaning and purpose in work, people are both treated better and they find more fulfillment in what they do."
The Solution: Humanistic Leadership
So what can be done to enable healthier work cultures? I am hopeful, for one, that we will start to see new start-up companies which start out with the sole purpose to create products or services which give back to society versus those which take away. These will be the most healthy organizational cultures. Short of this, I would continue to encourage organizational leaders to step back and examine the factors which contribute to their current work culture. Behavior, norms, and language all influence work culture and how people work together. Most important is how people are nurtured and treated at work. I call this humanistic leadership. This is what influences a positive organizational culture. It helps if people see the connection between the overall mission of the organization and their work. Humanistic leaders make the development of the management system a priority through the lens and understanding that doing so will enable both people and profit to grow. This is especially important as people reach the middle of their lives. In midlife, people will start to seek greater purpose and meaning in their work. They will seek work cultures that are making a difference in society and not just making money. Both can co-exist, but people development must become the focus and top priority over just making money. This is the best path to healthy organizational culture and sustainability for people and the planet.
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