How To Manage Workplace Culture

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Leaders and managers are responsible for defining workplace culture.

If you transfer company values into employee qualities, it creates a united sense of purpose and sets the business up to succeed.

Key points

  • An open, honest and supportive workplace culture guarantees effective communication and co-operative teamwork
  • If senior leaders regularly survey and evaluate employee qualities, as well as performance, they’ll safeguard a positive workplace culture
  • Culture change is a shock to the system, but the key to success is in regular appraisal and analysing survey data

What is workplace culture?

Workplace culture in the unique personality of your company.

For your people, it sets expectations and characterises your ways of working, representing your beliefs, values, mission and vision.

To anyone outside of your business, those qualities become your unique selling points (USP). It sets you apart from your competitors.

Benefits of a positive workplace culture

A good reputation makes it easier to recruit the best talent, motivate your team, set up new business relationships and keep loyal customers coming back for more.

Key qualities in a positive workplace culture

A positive workplace culture radiates enthusiasm and care.

Conscientiousness at the top wins investment from the ground up, so make sure your business decisions are ethical, moral, fair and people-centric.

But what’s right for your business won’t always be right or fair for everyone who works for you.

One dubious decision could cause long-lasting damage, so to safeguard a positive environment you must consistently survey your staff, analyse their feedback and apply change.

A supportive and positive workplace culture gives your employees license to reach their potential. They’re encouraged to:

  • Fearlessly innovate
  • Problem-solve without consequence
  • Communicate clearly
  • Treat others fairly

All qualities that can be inspired by skilled team leaders and managers.

Who is responsible for workplace culture?

Everyone, but the responsibilities change as you move through departments and hierarchy of accountability.

HR and recruitment

Your people management teams are responsible for finding the right people to work for you.

You should get a sense of integrity, character and suitability for your workplace culture, as well as skills and ability, during the interview process.

If they’re an uncomfortable fit, you need to assess whether they would cope and adapt to your culture and if you have the extra resources to support them.

You want diversity and new points of view that will keep your business on its toes. The task is finding someone with the confidence to stay true to their beliefs, but also adopt the mission and vision of your business.

Leaders and management

Once the right people are in place, leaders and managers are responsible for communicating values. They have to show employees:

  • What the company values are
  • What they mean
  • How they transfer into individual qualities


Once employees are empowered with information, they are responsible for representing the overarching qualities in their physical work and ways of working.

Their identity and personality won’t be compromised by embodying your values.

“We’re honest”

To be characterised by honesty, a company must operate in a transparent way and demonstrate that it observes the law.

An honest employee gives all their expertise to the role to drive improvement. They are transparent in their methodology, straightforward and fair.

Leadership pushed to the limit

The skills our apprentices learn on a Leadership & Management course can prepare them for almost anything.

Listen to our ILM Level 5 delegate Jamie Davies, talk to us about flexing his leadership muscles in the Jordanian desert, during his time as a recruit on SAS: Who Dares Wins.

 Creating a culture in the workplace

Whether your company is established or a startup, you can take control of your workplace culture and create an environment to be proud of.

It’s not a PR or brand exercise – this is performance-related. It’s to get the business working efficiently.

Culture change in the workplace

Be realistic about what you’re working towards – you’re going to apply a new set of values and that will cause the culture to change.

Even an ill-defined personality, or a muddle of characters, is a culture of sorts to shift and align;

Manoeuvring a diverse group of people with all manner of experiences and perspectives towards a single vision is not an easy task.

Just like any other project, you must have a strategy for delivery, execution and measurement for it to transfer and embed successfully.

If you have no plan for how workplace values apply in practice, it will fail.

As the saying goes ‘a rotten apple spoils the whole barrel’ and change, even for the better, is difficult to action.

Here’s how you do it.

Define your business identity

To define your business identity, write a mission or vision statement that everyone working in senior roles and leadership can agree with.

It’s the who, what, when, where and why of your company, that’s inspirational, achievable but most importantly, accessible.

A starting point is to write down the overriding mission and purpose for the business as a whole.

For example, Patagonia’s mission statement is: ‘We’re in business to save our home planet’.

IKEA’s vision statement is‘To create a better everyday life for the many people‘.

What both businesses want to achieve is unquestionably clear.

It’s something you can replicate if you understand the purpose and challenges of your business.

If you’re struggling to define your business identity or secure agreement from senior managers:

  • Speak to the founders of the business – what motivated them to start a company? What problem were they trying to solve?
  • Survey the whole business – what’s the most important work we do? What do we think we’re trying to achieve?
  • Survey the general public – how do we help you?

Share vision, values and beliefs

“Your vision and values are always the what and the why of your operation,” explains our Head of Leadership and Management, Andrew Wallbridge.

“Managers need to translate these in to ‘what does it mean to me?’. Focus on how employees should behave and how they can contribute to the vision. Then, follow up with constant reminders of both.

“Make them applicable at every level in the translation piece.

“I would recommend that organisations run an education and awareness event so there is a common understanding of the what and why because  most employees don’t even know why organisations have values.”

Should you have negative values?

If your vision is to disrupt your market and to be the most competitive provider, should one of your values be ‘competitive’? Or even ‘disruptive’?

If you encourage your employees to bring pursue a negative value, without guidance about how to do it, you’re potentially pursuing a toxic environment.

You need to do extra work to make sure it adapted in the right way.

For example, will ‘competitive’ manifest as cutthroat, snakey and aggressive, if left unchecked? Or will it naturally be interpreted as ambitious and determined?

A negative value could derail your workplace culture if you assume commonsense will inform its definition.

Be really clear about what you want your employees to do with values and what kind of workplace culture you want to create.

Set clear expectations and measure performance

How well your staff fulfil the company values should be part of their annual performance review, alongside objectives and targets.

By benchmarking the values, you’re proactively encouraging a positive workplace culture that you can measure and evaluate based on data.

You don’t have to incentivise or place targets on value fulfilment, but you should make it clear that everyone has a duty to meet the company values.

Encourage them to record examples of how and when the value leads them to success, but also talk about when it becomes complicated or distracting.

If a negative pattern emerges and employees consistently fail to transfer the values into their work, it can help you to prove two things:

  • The value is abstract, or impractical. It usually suggests that the mission and vision haven’t translated into the workplace and you need to adjust the mission and vision or think carefully about the definition of the value
  • There’s another issue preventing the value from being fulfilled, like a blame subculture

What is blame culture?

In a blame culture, people don’t contribute or take responsibility because they’ll be criticised, reprimanded, punished or even bullied. At worst, they’ll fear losing their jobs.

Blame culture makes communication very clumsy and cumbersome, it slows down your whole operation. Not only will it hurt morale, but it will also hit your productivity and bottom line.

Team leaders and managers although accountable aren’t always responsible for blame culture. Because no one feels safe enough to speak, it’s very difficult to identify the cause and buck the harmful trend.

Because you can’t get a truthful picture of what’s working and what isn’t, that makes your task to overhaul the workplace culture even harder.

To overcome it, you need to train your leaders and managers to focus on learning.

Create safe spaces through regular conversations and problem-solving sessions. It won’t happen quickly, but you need to nurture the healthy behaviours and tackle the damaging ones.

Broadcast and instruct, but ask for feedback

Whatever values you’re trying to apply, make sure your line managers an leaders are confident with how they should work in practice so they can support their teams.

  • Workshop the values in common situations, think about how it could be dialled up and down depending on who’s in the room and where you are
  • Send out guides for managing the workplace culture and ask for their feedback
  • Relay case studies, revisions and information in emails, internal instant messaging channels, on noticeboards, in events and town hall meetings

Managers and team leaders can only support their people in creating a positive workplace culture if they operate transparently with and clear and frequent communication.

For example, telling a team they must be honest at any cost could cause disruptive arguments.

Values are shades of grey and you need fluid feedback between employees, managers and team leaders so you can tweak the culture strategy if something isn’t working.

Emphasise personal development

Positive workplace culture will improve your reputation and secure the future of your business.

But broadcasting that ‘you must behave in this way because we’ll sell more’, won’t motivate your employees.

Encourage them to contribute positively to your culture by showing them what’s in it for them – personal development.

During the performance review, outline the individual benefits of meeting the company values.

For example, if your value is ‘bold’ that could encourage them to:

  • Speak up in meetings, building their reputation
  • Ask difficult questions and problem-solving, increasing their experience and expertise

That could lead to promotions, pay rises, more training and an enjoyable, challenging, exciting and diverse time at work.

How to manage resistance

If your organisation is based across multiple sites, or you have lots of departments and multiple goals, there’s bound to be a small group of workers who struggle to adapt.

You should be able to identify unusual subcultures or patterns of negative culture if you’re regularly surveying.

But, most humans lie to protect themselves. In this case, it’s writing ‘everything is great!’ on your workplace culture questionnaire (even if it’s anonymous) to keep their job.

Even if negative feelings don’t appear in the survey analysis, hold off before patting yourself on the back. Open your ears and listen for:

  • Confusion
  • Dissatisfaction
  • Anger
  • Desperation
  • Exhaustion
  • Exasperation

Then look at performance analysis. Are we working efficiently? Are we missing deadlines? What’s the problem?

It’s due diligence you owe your business. Change is unsettling and if anyone can’t catch up with the new pace, it’s not because they don’t want any part of it, they just need help to adapt to the new environment you’ve created.

Once you know who is resisting change, apply positive mentoring and coaching to support them – reunite them with their more adaptable colleagues.

Most issues can be resolved with training. For example, if your workplace culture wants to be ‘forward-thinking’ that could manifest as an investment in technology.

If your people resist software changes, meet it head-on. Ask them why. It’s more than likely they’re nervous about a skills gap.

It has all the potential to frustrate managers and team leaders, but patience goes a long way when you’re overhauling workplace culture.

Questionnaires, surveys and a culture red herring

A blame subculture, or even just an anti-establishment attitude, means employees will say one thing to you in reviews but act differently when you’re out of earshot.

That makes it difficult for you to assess whether you have a positive or negative workplace culture, why performance is sluggish when the survey results reveal engagement.

In a study by the Havard Business Review in January 2020, researchers examined “the diversity of thoughts, ideas, and meaning expressed by team members and then measured whether it was beneficial or detrimental to team performance.”

The study implied you get a clearer view of workplace culture by mining big data to reveal culture traces in digital communications, like Slack and email.

Not every employer has the resource to mine all employee communications to find patterns and trends, but the study made three observations that could help you create a harmonious workplace culture.

#1 Employees who quickly adapted to change were more successful.

If you can train your employees to respond well in dynamic and fast-paced environments, they’ll feel prepared and able to cope with the ebb and flow of the business. Change management training will help them manage disruption and support one another through change.

#2 Employees who held the same values as their colleagues are less likely to quit.

This takes us back to HR and recruitment. Apply questions designed to find commonality between existing employees and new hires in your interview process.

This one seems obvious, but the thing they have in common might be a positive attitude to change and a love of dynamic working.

#3 You have to expect arguments and they are not always an indication of poor workplace culture.

For example, a group of employees working on a single project were more likely to have fractious disagreements at the beginning and end of a project, due to the nature of the work, their mindset, goals and focus at that time.

However, the debate was lively and welcome at the midpoint of a project.

To maintain a calm workplace culture, you can work on communication skills that help your employees express themselves under pressure and respectfully assertive.

Need to develop your Leadership and Management skills?

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Picture of Andrew Wallbridge
Andrew Wallbridge
Andrew is TSW's Head of Leadership & Management. He’s coached and mentored leaders and the senior management teams at international brands.
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