5 Fresh Ideas to Evolve Your Workplace Culture


Laraine McKinnon



Many of us have concluded that the secret sauce for a truly successful organization is its culture. To have success, you need a positive and productive workplace where people can do their best work and be recognized for it. If workplace culture is the sum of all the parts, what influences can you bring to bear to create positive influences? How do you measure and course correct when needed? Here are five ideas that will help evolve your company culture.

  1.  Live by your values

    Executive leaders spend a lot of time designing corporate values to serve as the backbone of culture. Values are touted on websites, painted on lobby walls and referenced at company meetings. I have some favorites, like “Make Mom Proud,” which Box lists as their seventh value, and the whole concept of Conscious Culture at Cisco, which was just named the 2019 World’s Best Workplace (a good sign they’re doing it right!).

    Sometimes values can feel cheesy, but they also set expectations, provide inspiration, and help level the playing ground. When companies live up to their values, they create trust and loyalty, which are drivers of employee engagement.

    On the flip side, when companies don’t stay true to their values, employees become cynical. Particularly when integrity, trust, or ‘do the right thing’ is listed as a corporate value, and then certain people are allowed to get away with a compliance slip, or disrespectful or harassing behavior, the irony is thick. It happens more frequently than we like to admit. Each time a value is bypassed, it’s eroded and the trust that employees may have had with the organization goes with it. I believe more damage is done by excusing bad behavior than by amplifying good behavior.

    Importantly, your values always give you a reason and opportunity to course correct. Think of it as an “out” when a conversation is going down the wrong path. “You know, it would be easier to let Marcus take over that project, but I don’t feel like that’s going to have us all ‘rowing in the same direction.’ It might take a little more time, but let’s help Carmen get another resource to drive the objectives instead.”

  2. Connect everything to your core business initiatives

    If there’s one thing that unites your organization, it’s your core business initiatives – those shared goals for the organization that aligns objectives and measures of success. How do your values and your culture help you achieve those ambitious goals you’ve set for next year?

    I think a lot about diversity and inclusion efforts, which are a key part of culture initiatives. These efforts are often siloed with a D&I leader and, if lucky, their small team. Too often they’re considered a vertical of HR strategy, supporting recruiting and retention, and focused on a standalone goal, like increasing the number of diverse talent in the organization. As we know from the publicly-released numbers, not much has changed: goals are re-stated every year and consistently missed.

    But what if we connected diversity and inclusion with our core business initiatives instead? What will it take to launch the new product or increase cross sales in the customer base, or innovate a new process? The strongest candidate for a product manager for that great new product could be the non-traditional candidate with a philosophy degree? Is it perhaps the introvert that has the strongest trust relationship with the client, and is most likely to earn the cross-sell – and not the energetic rep who always takes the client out to dinner and brags about it? Might the woman who grew up in the Philippines have a great perspective on mobile strategy that comes from living in a country that went from disconnected to connected almost overnight? Is the new virtual reality product going to work for the global customer base if it is only tested by a homogeneous group of men?

    Who from your talent pipeline has the creativity, perspective and resilience to best deliver on your core business initiatives? And how do you support them for the benefit of achieving shared business goals?

  3. Make your organization a place where people feel they can belong

    There’s a reason that belonging is the new buzzword in culture. The feeling of being your authentic self, do your best work and be recognized for it is a powerful motivator.

    How do you create an environment of belonging?

    Teach people to be a little less judgy: Bias, stress, speed of work, and the lack of quality connections with colleagues cause us to make assumptions that are often off-base. You might think: “Shamra just arrived really late again, she must be lazy/disorganized/the school drop off mom.” Actually, Shamra just walked the engineering team on the other side of the earth through the entire backlog and did it on video from 2am – 5am. Her husband does the school drop-offs and her house could be in the brochure for the Container Store. Train your teams on unconscious bias, help colleagues get to know each other, and remind people to be curious instead of jumping to a conclusion. The latter is easy to reinforce – see a great example in our video here.

    Find ways to help people be “all-in:” Establish policies, programs, and practices that let people take the time they need, such as vacation, health, or personal time. Where possible, don’t differentiate by gender or family status. I was on a team where three of us had sequential life events – getting married and going on a honeymoon, having a baby, and the opportunity to live in another country for a month with their partner. We treated these opportunities equally because, for each of us, it was our personal top priority. We used the appropriate leave policies, and one after the other went out on our personal adventure. We each did everything possible to give clients the very best service while the other was out. We were grateful for the time off and appreciative of our amazing teamwork. We returned to work eager to re-engage, ultra-efficient in our work, and ready to take on the next business challenge.

    Look for the unsung heroes: Who is consistently giving 110% and not getting recognized for it? Who makes the business hum even if they’re not directly tied to a key initiative? Does the organization appreciate your newest or most junior employees? By their team? Recognition is an important check and balance for the organization. When recognition is skewed, it creates unfair disparities that will persist. Correcting that balance helps everyone do their part, which leads to a greater sense of belonging.

  4. Measure key aspects of your workplace culture

    With our focus on creating healthy workplace cultures, we’re always interested in measuring sentiment. We embed questions in our harassment prevention, unconscious bias and code of conduct trainings that address aspects of culture that are often not discussed in other forums.

    • Has your organization created an environment where you feel comfortable speaking up?
    • Do people in your organization get away with disrespectful behavior because of their authority?
    • What causes the most conflict in your workplace?
    • Has your company done an excellent job of defining and communicating its diversity and inclusion goals?
    • Have you had to minimize part of your heritage or personal identity to fit into a job?

    Do leaders at your company create a sense of belonging for all employees?

    Our culture analytics provide reference points for thoughtful dialogue. For example, the question “Do you feel you can be your authentic self at work?” was asked to all employees as part of unconscious bias training that was made mandatory by the corporation. In the results, we saw a bifurcated distribution. 60% of the population agreed/strongly agreed and 40% disagreed/strongly disagreed.

    This single observation is a great topic for a facilitated conversation. Are those in the majority surprised to learn that so many of their colleagues don’t experience the same comfort as they do? What costs (psychological, time and effort ‘covering,’ etc) do the colleagues in the minority bear? Why is authenticity hampered? How does the company and its culture contribute? Is there too much homogeneity? Is leadership unknowingly broadcasting a certain set of expectations that aren’t applicable to all? How has this created cultural norms?

    Measuring workplace culture often creates more questions than answers, but the investment in the process builds a strong foundation for a great and more resilient workplace culture.

  5. Play the long game – it’s an evolution

    Bring a growth mindset and a design thinking approach to evolving your culture. There will be some aspects you can control, and many you can’t. You’ll be able to create positive influences, and then internal or external forces will bring negative influences. (Live your values as you handle the negative influences – be honest and transparent if integrity is one of your values).

    Cultures evolve over time with new leaders, new joiners, new leavers. It’s the role of the culture strategist to observe, prototype, and iterate.

    Observe: What areas are working well? Where are there gaps? Who are your positive culture carriers? Who are your naysayers? What are your persistent issues? Who is left out? How are circumstances changing – and what might make things ripe for a new initiative? Where are your opportunities?
    Prototype: Take the best of what’s working and see how it can be replicated. Craft programs or processes that can help fill the gaps, even if it’s a small first step. An honest and earnest attempt to improve will be appreciated by those who feel disintermediated by the culture, yet choose to stay.
    Iterate: Collect feedback and incorporate it into your next version. Watch how things change. Get executives to invest more to expand what’s working, put a stop to projects that are wasteful of time or resources. You’ll grow trust if you halt the things that aren’t working instead of pretending that they do.

You can’t create and orchestrate a culture, but you can influence how it flows. By engaging senior executives, the people who are laser-focused on the core business initiatives, and those who are disintermediated, you can nudge, inform, and inspire others to put their efforts into creating a healthy workplace culture that allows everyone to thrive. Learn more about this topic by following us on Linkedin and tune into Always Learning on Linkedin Live, every other Tuesday at 10:30am PST.


diversity and inclusionWorkplace Culture

Laraine McKinnon

Laraine is an advisor to Emtrain, and an unconscious bias expert. Laraine is a passionate supporter of diversity in the workplace; she focuses on blending behavioral science (managing unconscious bias, organizational behavior), big data and practical implementations to transform workplace cultures. Laraine has led high-performance customer success and sales teams at BlackRock and Barclays Global Investors, and founded strategic consulting firm LMC17.

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