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Creating Positive – High Performance Cultures

by Guest Writter
Andrew Faas, Author, The Bully’s Trap: Bullying in the Workplace

Throughout my career as a manager and executive, creating positive high-performing cultures has been core to my success and, by extension, the employees I was responsible for and the organizations I represented.

During and since the release of my book, The Bully’s Trap – Bullying in the Workplace, I have received a lot of pushback from executives who discount the value of a positive culture and consider culture initiatives as a bunch of human resources gobbledygook. What I do agree with on this is: when cultural initiatives are not tied to performance, it usually is gobbledygook.

Today, what we are witnessing in real time on prime time is a cultural revolution against the political establishment, largely because the mood and emotions of the nation have been misread. Based on interviews with over six hundred people on bullying in the workplace, I can assert that board directors and senior leadership are similarly misreading the mood and emotions of their employees. Unfortunately, all too many don’t care.

Evidence of this can be found in the release of the “World’s Most Admired Companies” in the March 28th issue of Fortune magazine. Fortune partnered with Korn Ferry and the Hay Group, both in the human resource business, and asked thousands of insiders, directors and analysts to pick the most respected names in global business. It is unlikely that non-executive employees were asked. If they were asked, companies like Amazon would never have made it to where Fortune placed them, the number three spot on the list – more likely, they wouldn’t have even made the list. Late last year, The New York Times published a scathing article on Amazon’s culture. This February, in Seattle, I interviewed a number of current and former Amazon employees who validated the allegations made in the NYT article. What was described to me was a rats’ nest of toxicity where only “narcissistic, psychopathic bullies thrive and survive.” The fact that Amazon places third on the list challenges its credibility, because it misrepresents what customers, prospective employees and investors should know about each company.

In February, the Faas Foundation and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence announced a joint initiative – the Emotion Revolution in the Workplace – to scientifically determine how employees feel about their work, why they feel the way they do, and the quantifiable impacts these emotions have on individual and organizational performance, as well as overall health and well being.

What we already know is, according to Gallup polling, over 70 percent of North American workers are not engaged. More significantly, a Stanford study has concluded that over 120 thousand deaths annually may be attributable to workplace stress.

Understanding and accepting the indisputable evidence showing how emotions influence performance is the prerequisite step to creating positive, high performance cultures.

Early in my career, a mentor suggested I meet on a regular basis with everyone I was responsible for to understand how they felt about their work, why they felt the way they did, whether they felt they were contributing to their full potential, and what prevented them from being able to contribute to their full potential. This information helped me understand performance motivators and restrainers. Having this information, I was able to respond to employees’ desires to be positively challenged, to not be distracted by or involved in non-value added activities, and for a reduction in unnecessary stress factors.

Over the years using this method of understanding emotions, a cultural model evolved, which was anchored by a value exchange covenant based on the ethic of reciprocity. An overall organization, team or individual can apply this model. In summary this is the way it works:

First: Determine what the organization expects from the employee.

Second: Test the reasonableness of these expectations.

Third: Determine what the employee needs to deliver on the organization’s expectations.

Fourth: Reach agreement on what each expects from each – “The Covenant.”

Fifth: Initiate regular and ongoing discussions on the efficacy of the covenant.

Developing this model requires a rigorous review of almost every factor involved in organizational dynamics. In most cases, it will challenge how organizations are governed and organized, how they make decisions, hire, fire, promote, motivate, communicate, measure, reward, recognize, align; as well as distribute assignments, identify and handle risk, and handle crisis.

From the research I have done, and what we are likely to find in the Emotion Revolution in the Workplace, fear of being let go is one of the biggest concerns that employees have. When I identify this in organizations I have worked with, the usual reaction is, “Surely they don’t expect us to provide a guarantee of employment?”  I respond to this by indicating that employees understand market dynamics, and are looking to their employers’ commitments to use job cuts as a last resort, rather than a knee jerk reaction when short-term targets are not met. They also expect fairness and humane treatment when cuts are made. To illustrate how not to respond, my go-to example is now Melissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, who in trying to quell discontent, called an all hands meeting to declare, “the days of bloodletting are over;” then, less than two weeks later demanded the firing of another 1,100 employees in a desperate attempt to save her own skin. Her future and her reputation could have been saved if she had said something to the effect, “We have gone through a tough time. I know the toll it has taken on employees, I also have to be realistic that we are and will go through more difficult times. But, let me assure you that I will do everything I can to minimize the negative impact on employees, and if further cuts are required we will do it in a consistently fair and humane manner.”

What I am proposing here may not be as attractive as the kind of perks being used by a number of organizations to attract and retain talent, such as free lunch, gym memberships and unlimited paid time off. While my culture model may not be as sexy, it is a more effective and sustainable motivational method responding to how employees want to feel. More and more businesses are cutting back on workplace perks due to financial concerns, so instilling a positive work culture can be cost-effective in more ways than one. A responsive, reciprocal culture can create positive and psychologically safe workplace cultures, which is good for bottom lines and employees alike.


About the Author

Andrew Faas is an author, philanthropist and management advisor specializing in creating psychologically healthy workplaces. Before beginning his philanthropic career, he worked for some of Canada’s largest corporations for over 25 years in executive positions. He leads the Faas Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting not-for-profit organizations concerned with workplace wellbeing and other fields of personal health and research. His book, The Bully’s Trap: Bullying in the Workplace details his personal and administrative experiences battling against bullying and the corporate cultures that embolden it.

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