Culture Makes the Difference

Culture Makes the Difference

Karen Mack, MSOD, says making the workplace one where people can comfortably and safely speak up is key to creating a forward-thinking workplace.

Bill Fox

Karen Mack: MSOD, Principal at Karen Mack Management Consultants, LLC.


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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

Karen: Culture makes the difference. If the culture in the workplace is such that people are comfortable speaking up to express their truth, I believe the workplace will be better overall because more people will be heard. More issues, concerns, and how to do things will be communicated and (hopefully) explored. This way, you can make different choices versus simply having top-down decisions that may or may not be connected to real needs.

Making the workplace one where people can comfortably and safely speak up is key.

That’s not to say that top leadership doesn’t know what’s going on; clearly they know something or (in most cases) they wouldn’t be where they are. Depending upon how many levels of management there are, leaders may not know what lower or even lateral levels are dealing with.

For example, I recently facilitated a leadership conference for an organization in the Washington, DC area. One of the first things the new General Manager did soon after his arrival was a walkabout. He moved around the city talking to employees who provide customer service and work in various positions. He wanted to get an understanding of the real issues and what’s going on outside of headquarters. When he and other executives looked at strategic plans for the next two years, the CEO had real data to work with versus relying on what the previous leader or a select group of people said was going on. Interestingly, the board of directors didn’t think big changes were needed, but his walkabout showed that big changes were needed, and they’re making changes now.

What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?

Karen: Everyone wants to be heard. People respond when they feel heard, respected, and part of the process. Once this happens, you are more inclined to get employees’ full attention and best performance.

People should be asked: “What do you think or how do you think (xyz) will work best? Are we following the best process? Are you able to complete this work in a certain amount of time? What needs to change and how would you change it?” If employees are included and involved, they’re more likely to be engaged.

What are people really lacking and longing for in the workplace?

Karen: People are longing to feel the workplace is one where they belong and can contribute.Because we rarely choose the people we work with, belonging or having a positive or family-oriented atmosphere is often an unspoken or possibly an unconscious desire.

People want to feel comfortable and confident that their work matters and that they’re in a place where they can give their best. People are longing to have workplaces that provide opportunities to give and receive. If these dynamics are present, it captures people and keeps them engaged. Employees will be more productive because they feel they are a part of an inclusive culture. However, there’s often a significant disconnect, which leads to workplace issues.

Even though we’re in a digital age, which offers countless ways to connect and communicate, I’m particularly concerned about face-to-face interaction. How do you know if you’re communicating effectively or not? How do you deal with conflict unless you learn how to confront someone or something… in real-time?

Conflict isn’t a bad thing, but if you don’t learn how to deal with it, then inadvertent harm may be caused, which produces the things that are happening in society today. People just blast each other on social media because there’s a screen to hide behind. People wouldn’t say the things they say and they wouldn’t do things they do if they had to say or do them in front of the person they’re dealing with. Social media has created a convenient safety net of sorts that contributes to this disconnect.

Conversely, social media provides avenues for human contact and that’s what people are longing to do. Workplaces would be better if people felt more connected. Consider also the fact that there are so many more virtual workplaces now. There are concerted efforts to make virtual reality more of real reality. While I don’t know how we do that technically, we’ve got to get in that space.

What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?

Karen: It depends on what the leaders are trying to learn, so I don’t think there’s just one most important question. What’s the leader trying to learn, understand, and know? Where are they trying to go? What are they trying to do? Important questions really stem from that.

There are many important questions. Start by asking yourself important questions such as what do I (the leader) need and then frame questions based on the clarity of one’s own needs. What is the need or desire based on? From here create the questions that you need to ask others.

What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?

Karen: It’s the same process as the previous question and depends upon what it is that you are striving to understand or do. For every employer who has 10 employees, the most important question to ask will probably be 10 different questions⏤or at least 10 different versions of one general question.

For employees, consider that your question may only be applicable to you. It’s good to be as objective as possible when asking questions. Overall, I don’t believe that there’s just one question that can be asked because each employee and each leader is different. Having an understanding of what it is that you’re trying to learn or understand from the other person will help you form the questions you need to ask no matter who’s asking.

What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?

I may be repeating myself and it’s ok. “What do we need to know, do or be? What are we seeking? What do we want, etc.?” The more you understand what is it that you need to know, the more confident you’ll be about what needs to be asked. Therefore, “What do I need to ask?” would be a good first question to reflect on because it opens the mind to think about what questions should be asked.