3 Steps to Creating Healthy Workplace Culture
Diversity of identities and perspectives is good for problem solving, for reaching new audiences, good for business, and is essential in a healthy workplace. Even if you are starting with a homogenous workplace now, using my steps of diagnosis, appropriate confidentiality, transparency, and power dynamics facilitation will make your workplace safer and more productive and set the groundwork to hire employees to increase diversity. They will also allow you to become the type of leader who knows how to effectively promote and encourage the expression of diverse perspectives, while not allowing their differences to create division from unsettled or unnoticed conflicts between your employees.
As discussed in previous posts, the problems around discrimination today often do not look like one evil person setting out to destroy someone else. Many people wrongly believe that we are solidly on the side of equality if we haven’t punched a black person, gay person, or a woman today. We say, “Look, that business employs black people, so it must not be discriminatory.” This is like saying a doctor did not contribute to unsanitary conditions in hospitals unless he deliberately put dirt in a patient’s wound. Each of us contributes, whether positively or negatively, to the systems that promote people to privileged positions or prevent them from getting there.
This is true for the discrimination we experience against ourselves as much as the discrimination we see against others. Our unconscious and conscious biases contribute to our willingness to do uncomfortable, hard things and stretch ourselves to see new perspectives. It is always possible to examine our thinking, practice mental hygiene, and contribute to a more productive, inclusive, culturally healthy workplace that we will benefit from as much as anyone else.
The steps for properly addressing and preventing discrimination and harassment are discussed in detail in my new book The Inclusive Leader’s Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture and will also be featured on this blog in forthcoming entries. If you are reading this post, I’m assuming that you are at least open to the idea that we all have room to examine the biases living in our unconscious brains and that it is worth taking some time to learn how to shift power dynamics, resolve conflict, and create a healthy work environment. I have seen business owners apply each of these steps differently based on their industry, and it is normal to work with a lawyer or power dynamics facilitator as you put them into practice for your unique business.
Step 1: Diagnosing where your culture is now through an effective Cultural Health Survey. If you take active steps to check in with your community at work about what they are experiencing, allow them to respond anonymously, and really listen to their responses, you will learn a lot about what you might be missing. Many business owners believe that because they have a good company doing good work in the world with good employees, they do not have to worry about cultural health problems. This is like saying, “I recycle and volunteer at church, so I won’t get the flu this year.” They are completely unrelated, and often, working for a company doing really great work in the world also has its own individualized challenges regarding cultural health issues, like I talked about earlier.
When employees are doing work they find important, they especially need outreach. They want to focus on work, and they want to prove to their bosses what a great job they can do. Employees who care about the work they are doing do not want to derail the company by raising cultural health issues. This means that if a cultural health infection is present, it may fester and grow until it becomes intolerable to the employees involved. Then, they often leave, still without reporting to the company.
In order to address those issues, you have to be proactive in seeking out any potential problems so that you can address them before they get bad. Doing that requires a Cultural Health Survey that asks the right questions. A cultural health survey is only one step. A survey gets you initial, basic, superficial information, but truly addressing cultural health requires much more.
Step 2: Providing a confidential reporting mechanism within your business model. Where possible, this allows employees to seek advice and perspective on their situation, with protections around retaliation. If employees know that they can’t seek advice about negative experiences they might be having without that conversation being repeated back to a harasser, they will not report, and you will never learn about the issues (or you will learn about them so much later that you can’t do anything about them).
Offering a confidential reporting mechanism sometimes means having an external resource who is a reporting option (a contracted lawyer or consultant), or sometimes it means having someone designated within the company who is a safe reporting option.
This step involves two considerations. First, how to promote early reporting as most company cultural health issues go unreported. Second, I talk about when investigations are appropriate. Sometimes, discipline is necessary around allegations and you have other employees and clients to protect, so full confidentiality is not required. In some situations, investigation can be necessary and we talk about how to know when that is.
Step 3: Shifting power dynamics to create healthy workplace cultures. When examining this step, I will discuss the tools I use to make these shifts. When an employee reports a cultural health problem, whether anonymously through a Cultural Health Survey or through another reporting mechanism, it is crucial to respond immediately and appropriately. Creating inclusion is not about listening to problems and doing nothing or finding out about problems and then retaliating against the reporter for talking about them. It is better to decide not to find out at all about the problems than to actively find out about them and retaliate or fail to respond.
To make this shift we will talk about the underlying cause of power imbalance at work and how I work with employees to repair unfairnesses and inequalities. When we can truly understand power dynamics and make the shifts necessary to create a healthy environment for ourselves at all times, we can effectively stop and prevent harassment and discrimination.
We will examine the root cause of high-crisis conflict and how to resolve it. Some people have been trained in a competitive, negotiation model of conflict resolution, while others believe strongly in a community-building model. Using power dynamics to resolve conflicts can acknowledge where both of these other models have strengths and tailor a resolution to the individual seeking it.
Finally, in this step, we talk about transparency in responding to conflict and cultural health issues at work. Transparency can create a structure where both the employer and employee have clear expectations, and so issues around pay, discipline, and termination, while still important and often hard, contain less crisis drama. For employers, transparency can help you know when discipline and termination are appropriate; for employees, transparency can reduce the perception of unfairness or give an opportunity to correct unfairness where it exists.
Each of us has her own feelings and sensitive points about these topics, and so I encourage you to be easy with yourself through these steps and take breaks when they will serve you. It is okay to skip around if that serves you better, but I encourage you to allow discomfort to be okay. If something comes up for you about your own experience, let that discomfort exist. You are strong enough to feel difficult feelings. I know that for a fact if you have created a business. That is hard work! Ignoring this issue is like ignoring a broken leg. It might heal, but is that how you want it to heal?
Feeling difficult feelings and looking at the issue anyway is worth it for the future generations who will come after us, looking back and wondering why we did not practice mental hygiene and let so many die because of our unwillingness to practice regular mental hygiene. Honestly, though, I think these topics are incredibly freeing to talk about. I hate to be a downer about them, but I want you to know that if they are difficult for you, you are not alone. If you find it exciting to think of the possibility of a future where we have so mastered mental hygiene that every employee knows how to shift power dynamics to create a safe environment, you are also not alone in that. That is how I feel, and so I’m excited you’re willing to listen to my lectures on the topic. Thanks for making the world a better place!
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.