What creates positive workplace culture?

Robert Hughes

When we look at the reader statistics for Return To Work Matters it is obvious that Workplace Culture rates highly as a topic.

It's a subject that has been of interest to me as a boss for the last twenty years.  While Culture has been my primary professional focus, the subset of workplace culture has been a practical interest.  I can write about this from a personal experiential perspective (lol my perspectives are often lateral and pragmatic), hence I encourage others with a similar interest to contribute their opinion and any specialists in the field are welcome to lead us into new areas of discussion.

There is a tendency in many articles on workplace culture to mistake it for a particular aspect of work e.g. work / life balance, or the freedom to personalise one's workspace.  There is also a tendency to assume that workplace culture is a positive or good thing.  No doubt this is an onflow from the relatively recent recognition in management circles that certain qualities of work cultures have a profound effect on success.

Those organisations that discuss work culture are either aware of its positive impact, or value it as a focus to create improvement, hence the term workplace culture is often used in positive or developmental contexts and is consequently as often misunderstood to be inherently positive.  It is not.

Workplace culture is simply 'culture' as manifest in a particular work environment.  The Macquarie dictionary defines culture as 'the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings, which is transmitted from one generation to another.'  Bigger than purpose, broader than policy, the culture of an organisation is the sum of it's being.  It is impossible not to have a work culture and it is as easy (easier) to have a bad culture than a good one.

In the latter part of my 35 years as a CEO, my interest became less the purpose of the businesses I ran than the means to enable my employees to fulfil that purpose successfully in ways they found enjoyable, healthy and satisfying.  I left what we were doing (but not what we were doing next) to the people doing the work and focussed on context in which they were doing it, and what they would leave behind.  Workplace culture.

How does one best empower individuals to contribute to the group?

It's a complex area that can be discussed in a myriad of contexts and circumstances, some of which I will explore in future articles, but in essence my experience is that good workplace culture boils down to two things:

Trust and control.

For a worker to give the best of themselves they need to feel trust in doing so.  To trust and be trusted.   The elements that enable trust begin with simple respect, acknowledgement and consideration.  Humour and affection go a long way.  These things must of course be underpinned by consistency, clear role descriptions, good individual planning procedures and excellent communication, so people know what they are doing and have the opportunity to share that experience in a positive way.

Simple stuff that any good manager knows takes a great deal of effort and organisation to enable.

The second fundamental of positive workplace culture is control.  People don't enjoy work if they don't have control over what they are doing.

I have always found it an amusing irony that while the public view of a boss is of someone who controls others, a great boss is one who can look after a group of individuals while ensuring that they each have control over their own work.  To me being a boss is about the distribution of control rather than its accumulation. 

What a good boss needs to control (or guide, or mediate) is the way that the many individual contexts of control come together so that it is a positive experience for everyone; most of all the client.

Give people trust and control, and they have freedom to take responsibility, then they will give the best of themselves and feel good about what they are doing. 

Balancing the self interest of people, the personalities and their circumstances is the challenge.  But get it right and laughter becomes the music of an organisation that works hard and does good.  It's a wonderful thing.


Published 07 December, 2008 | Updated 01 December, 2015