The "Good" Business Blind Spot
It might surprise you to hear that owners of “good” businesses have more hurdles to creating a healthy company culture than owners of businesses that are solely revenue-driven and not interested in doing “good” in the world. It’s kind of hokey and overly simplistic to label businesses as “good” (and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that businesses focused on steep financial goals are “bad”), but what I’m talking about are businesses that are particularly forward-thinking, creative, and focused on making an impact on the world. These kinds of non-profits, creative agencies, and innovative organizations are a different class of business than companies only driven by revenue-based metrics.
One of the biggest differences these businesses face is that employees tend to be very dedicated to the work of a company they believe in. This can be amazing for creating focus, dedication, and drive. But it can also contribute to toxic company culture. The reason is that no employee wants to be the one who sticks out and drags down the team by complaining. Employees want to prove they are useful and that they care about work they know is making a difference in the world. That means that it is more likely that “good” companies won’t find out about cultural health problems in a company until they have become so intolerable that employees are at a crisis.
Think about this: You work in the warehouse of a big box-store corporation. Down the street are three other companies just like it. You go to work every day at 7:00 a.m., and you unload supplies from a truck and load them onto shelves in the warehouse. One day, a co-worker says, “Women shouldn’t be allowed to work in the warehouse.” You consider your options, and you decide that even if HR doesn’t like your complaint and fires you, you can get another job down the street at one of the other box stores. So, you go into the HR office and make your complaint.
Now, consider a different scenario: You just got your dream job at a non-profit advocating for youth with disabilities in the education system. You work any hours you are needed because you are so passionate about the work. A co-worker comes up to you and says, “Women shouldn’t be allowed to work as advocates.” You consider whether to tell your boss, but you feel embarrassed about complaining about such an ignorant comment when there are really more important things everyone sees in the office every day. You think about the kids you’re advocating for, and you decide just to brush it off. You’re tougher than that anyway. The comments keep coming and keep coming until one day, your co-worker undermines you to a school, and you feel you can’t do your job anymore. So, you quit, and, still embarrassed that you couldn’t cut it, you tell your boss that the work was just getting to you and you need a break.
Obviously, not every scenario is that straightforward, but the point is that employees who are just going to work for a paycheck they could get anywhere else are more motivated to report workplace issues because, among other reasons, they are not worried about distracting from important work. Employees who feel they couldn’t get another similar job, and who want to focus on work they care about, are more likely to try to ignore a problem until it gets so bad that it feels intolerable.
So, owners of businesses doing good in the world have some unique and additional challenges in creating healthy company culture that differ from most employers, and it is not a challenge everyone wants to take on. Of course, most employers do not want to face the expense of high turnover or lawsuits, but beyond that, some employers are content to let employees struggle as they learn how to navigate office politics and even bullying. Some employers are too uncomfortable themselves with the ideas of discrimination, bullying, and harassment to consider taking an active role in creating a healthy workplace.
Since you are reading this, I imagine it is different for you. I hope it is different for you. You may, like most of us, feel uncomfortable thinking about harassment and discrimination, but creating a healthy workplace culture is important enough to keep trying, even when it’s uncomfortable. You have probably experienced what it’s like to work in a company culture where you felt afraid and threatened versus a culture that felt safe and challenging. You understand how much more productive, creative, and focused employees can be when they are in a healthy workplace culture. You may even, like me, have had the experience of working late into the night with someone else because it’s fun. (What can I say? Some of us are addicted to work.)
But, wanting to create a healthy workplace culture and actually knowing how to create it are two different things. First, you have to decide what it even means to you to have a healthy workplace culture. To me, it means creating a safe place for people to have very different perspectives, experiences, and contributions. It means conflict will come up sometimes, but with the underlying expectation that everyone involved act with respect. It means everyone in the workplace understands why they are there and wants to contribute. It means not just giving people of all types, including people of color, of all genders and gender backgrounds, of all sexual orientations, all abilities, of all religions and nationalities the opportunity to participate, but actually including them and valuing respectful viewpoints that are unpopular or different than our own. It means that there is enough security and respect (both respect of others and self-respect) for people to truly be creative, seek challenge, and embrace failure as a crucial part of growth.
When a workplace is culturally healthy, it can create magic. This is because respectful, diverse opinions allow for creativity and growth that is not available in other environments.
Creating a healthy workplace culture doesn’t mean you have to fire all of your employees and go hire people who are somehow perfect and understand how to always be respectful. It doesn’t mean that no hugs are allowed or that everyone has to intuitively understand cultural perspectives that are different than their own without asking any questions. It means that you empower employees with tools that work so that they can engage in making the workplace healthy and productive. It means that employees know what to do when another person in the workplace does something they find offensive, without it having to become a trauma experience. It means that you may have employees who express discriminatory, harassing, bullying, or otherwise unacceptable behavior, and that other employees know how to stop that behavior without internalizing it.
If you are not ready to embrace the challenge of being an inclusive leader who is willing to create a workplace full of different perspectives, backgrounds, and cultural influences and is also safe and productive, that is totally your choice. Just remember, being inclusive is not just more fun, challenging, and interesting, it is also a good business decision. And, even if your business is facing the extra challenges good businesses often do when making sure workplace culture is healthy, and you are not hearing about problems until they’ve gotten to a crisis level, it is absolutely something you can solve with the right structure.
This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit www.HealthyWorkplaceCulture.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon.