There’s No Free Lunch When it Comes to Creating a Positive Workplace Culture


Laraine McKinnon



Let’s just start by acknowledging there’s a lot of free lunch. And snacks and games and happy hour celebrations. At the other end of the spectrum is unlimited vacation. There are more opportunities to have fun – to play hard and work hard – these are the perks of the modern workplace. And yet workers report stress at increasingly high levels

  • Ninety-four percent of American workers report experiencing stress at their workplace, according to Wrike.
  • Nearly two-thirds of professionals say their stress levels at work are higher than they were five years ago, according to Korn Ferry.

So, if these perks aren’t making us feel better, what else do we need to create a happy and engaged workforce?

Stress at Work

Korn Ferry cites three factors (among many) that impact stress levels at work: keeping up with changes in technology, increased workloads, and interpersonal conflict. They also report that 35% of respondents list their boss as their greatest source of current stress. Eighty-percent say that changes in leadership adds to their stress level.

We’ve accepted these as truths in our workplaces. Technology will evolve. We’ll always be asked to do more with less. We’re working in increasingly diverse teams. It’s unlikely we’re doing away with bosses, and changes in management are inevitable as our companies grow and evolve. So, how do we cope?

Beyond Lunch – for individuals

Here are a few things that any of us can do to create a better experience for our colleagues and ourselves.

Have a growth mindset

The human brain has amazing untapped capacity, yet we spend a lot of our time limiting ourselves, psyching ourselves out to think we can’t learn something new. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford has decades of research showing the self-fulfilling power of believing you can improve New technology coming down the path? It’s not that you can’t learn it. You just haven’t discovered it yet. Even if you choose not to learn it, you always could. But why not find a friend to teach you, or take a course to add it to your skillset? Don’t let it stress you out when it’s easily resolved.

Practice Positivity

As highlighted by Dr. Sigal Barsade of Wharton School of Management, emotions are contagious. Moods and emotions pass from person to person. If you feel like that added workload is a drag and you can only complain about it, you’re bringing everyone down. Is there a way you can learn from the extra work? Can you develop a more efficient way to get it done and get recognition for doing so? Could you delegate some of your other work to someone who would be thankful for the learning opportunity?

Cultivate an Environment of Respect

Whether you’re working in a small organization or a large organization, basic respect goes a long way. There’s a reason interpersonal conflict is one of the top three stressors noted above.

It is easily fixed. Be kind. Don’t be so quick to judge. Be a good listener. Don’t interrupt. Give credit where credit is due. Look around to see who is excluded and make a point to include them. Apologize right away if you may have offended someone. If you’re not sure, just say “that didn’t come out right, let me try again.” Appreciate different perspectives – they expand your own knowledge and make you smarter.

These sound easy, but they’re not. It takes great mental energy to reframe how we think, reorients how we feel, and reform how we interact with others. In many workplaces, people don’t feel they have the time or the capacity to spend their time acting in more thoughtful and positive ways. Admittedly it’s faster to make a quick judgment, to interrupt, to assume what someone is capable of. The time invested in positive practices will create a much greater return of time. It eliminates the unproductive time and energy spent ruminating over a mean comment, feeling frustrated that you can’t get your idea heard or convincing yourself you can’t do something when you could be starting to try.

Beyond Lunch – for management

Management has a special responsibility to step up and intervene when things aren’t going right. This also takes time, energy and often political capital that you’d rather reserve for something else. But dealing with issues early, head-on, and decisively will similarly be an investment with a much larger return over time.

Address and remediate bad behavior

Even in the best companies, bad behavior happens. Stop it immediately if you see it happening in front of you. If it gets reported to you, conduct a prompt and unbiased investigation. Create a culture that demands respectful interaction. Don’t excuse bad behaviors – it will only perpetuate a subculture in which people play the system for an unfair advantage while eroding trust, ruining productivity, and stifling innovation around them.

Promote managers based on their ability to manage

Too often we flip strong individual contributors into managers, making them newly responsible for tough deliverables and expecting them to magically acquire management skills. This happens as a norm in high-growth companies, and as an oversight in larger companies that forget to carve out the time and learning to support new managers. No wonder 35% of respondents in the Korn Ferry survey cited their boss as their greatest source of current stress.

Don’t forget the power of a great boss who can manage diverse teams, develop talent, and retain most of their best workers. Reward managers explicitly for their management skills, not just for meeting team deliverables. Try to capture the impact that positive managers make across the organization. Provide manager training, including coaching and mentoring techniques, managing unconscious bias, cultivating a respectful diverse workplace, and creating a culture of belonging.

Provide perks that make a difference

Back to perks…how do you create a suite of perks that both motivate and inspire, that encourage people to be their best and reinvest themselves into your company? While free lunch at work is appreciated by the busy worker, there should absolutely be a discomfort when the people living just outside your campus suffer food insufficiency. Focus team events and time off on community engagement and support. Find ways to make your perks a win-win-win, a win for the individual, a win for the company and a win for the broader community.

We’ve literally and figuratively discussed free lunch, and it’s clear that we need to go beyond it, to a place where we reorient our energy and attitudes towards the things that create a happier, healthier, more productive and innovative workplace. It isn’t easy and we’ll always be reminding ourselves at the moment, but it’s well worth the opportunity to create positive workplace cultures.

For more workplace culture tips and to stay up to date on the latest HR trends, follow Emtrain on LinkedIn. And tune in to our live show, Always Learning, held every other Tuesday at 10:30am PST on LinkedIn.


diversityemployee engagementWorkplace 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.

6 Rules to Prepare You for the Annual Performance Review

Read More >>

2020 Deadlines You Need to Keep Your Eye On

Read More >>

3 Companies Cultivating a Positive Workplace Culture

Read More >>