The 10 Principles for a Healthy Workplace
To Vera Asanin, President and CEO Your Workplace magazine.
It’s hard to believe that a decade has gone by since my first conversation with you about your dream of a magazine devoted to workplace wellness, compassionate leadership, and healthy organizations. Your passion for that cause was then, as now, so infectious that I volunteered to write a short column for the inaugural issue. I never thought for a moment that your dream would become an ongoing enterprise. Today it includes a glossy magazine, workshops, conferences, and new website. And never in my wildest dreams did I think there would be a decade’s worth of my columns, many of which were published in a little book called Wisdom for Your Workplace.
I know—perhaps more than most of your readers—the risks you have taken, the anxious moments about precarious finances, and the courageous paths you have taken in the midst of the many challenges of entrepreneurial life. Through my relationship with you, I have learned the enduring truth that sometimes life is a mystery to be lived rather than a problem to be solved. And what an enjoyable mystery it has turned out to be!
In this 10th anniversary year of our friendship, it seemed appropriate to write a column that seeks to distill the “workplace wisdom” that I have sought to share with your readers over the years. Here are my 10 principles for a healthy workplace–one for each year of our friendship. They aren’t commandments, but rather a list of ingredients that courageous and resilient employers and employees can use in their unique recipes for a healthy and productive workplace.
The 10 Principles for a Healthy Workplace:
- Engage in collaborative dialogue
The days of the heroic, patronizing leader who has all the answers are past. The result too often is a passive majority, which struggles with visions generated by the few or the one in charge. And far too much time is spent “selling” solutions or keeping people in line… that’s control rather than community building.
As communities of practice seek to make sense of turbulent times, their members need to enter into serious, candid, and supportive dialogue about critical issues. Those in formal leadership positions, what we might call the leadership core of the community, have a responsibility to raise issues and questions for wider dialogue. The emphasis here is on community conversation, not direction or manipulation from one individual or a small group. People in the leadership core can start the process, but it’s critical to have the widest possible participation. Visions and core values cannot be imposed; they must be discovered and named by the community that claims them.
- Sustain a foundation of trust
Without trust, our relationships are fragile, fearful, and uncertain. When trust is present, we can relate to each other as
confident and affirmed members of a workplace community.
Yet trust is so difficult to define: its recipe seems so elusive. I have often observed that if work groups could learn to manufacture trust, they could retire in grand style on the proceeds of their sales to others. In the end, trust is generated by ongoing, honest communication, often modeled by leaders. Words and actions literally have integrity–the world becomes predictable.
- Focus on outcomes
Too often we get caught up in the weeds and brambles of workplace life. We lose sight of the bigger picture, the shared goals of our collective ventures. We get tangled up in personality differences and personal preferences, confusing these with important outcomes. We seek to control how people work, rather than discussing what their work produces through time.
In my view, we need to focus on both workplace wellness and productivity as shared outcomes. Of course, we are held accountable for meeting our formal goals–serving clients, producing widgets, and generating sales. But we also need to see the quality of the work environment as a significant and enduring goal. Meeting production goals in an environment that corrodes morale and wellness is like strip mining. It works for while, but in the end, it leaves desolation and despair.
- Be tolerant of individual gifts and vulnerabilities—including your own
Each of us is a unique bundle of gifts and vulnerabilities. (I much prefer these words to “strengths and weaknesses”). Some things come easily to us; others require a great deal of work and discipline. At times, we discover that there are certain kinds of vulnerabilities that we simply have to learn to live with.
There are scores of useful tools for exploring differences in personal style(s). Don’t be afraid to incorporate them into professional development sessions for community members. This is one area in which leaders can really model the way. By sharing their own gifts and vulnerabilities non-defensively, they also add another building block to the foundation of trust.
- Stress teamwork. Be prepared for conflict
Over the years, I’ve written a few columns on teamwork, but there have been far more dealing with the squabbles, tensions, and downright toxic messes that attempts at teamwork often produce. Teamwork, which is essentially an intentional approach to workplace collaboration, is wonderful in the abstract but challenging in reality.
That’s why I always include a session on conflict management styles when I am asked to help with team building. It is absolutely critical that people learn about their personal approaches to handling conflict; otherwise they are at the mercy of their own vulnerabilities time and again.
- Clarify boundaries and expectations
Organizations these days need to be resilient and flexible in facing their challenges. I suspect that’s why detailed, top-down long-range plans have fallen from grace. We now speak of shared visions and core values. And that’s a wonderful thing because they help to create shared space and expectations. People working together are aligned in their purposes and practices.
I’ve found that it is worthwhile to clarify boundaries regarding appropriate behaviour. Most of the toxic organizational messes I have encountered over the years resulted from a few people acting in completely inappropriate ways to “manage” their problems with others. That’s a form of organizational profanity and it needs to be confronted early on. The best way is to work together to name specifically the “things we don’t do here” and to ban them from the workplace.
- Encourage all to learn about change
Change has been one of the enduring themes of Your Workplace content over the years. If anything, the pace and complexity of change has increased since I first began my columns. (The very first column I wrote had the catchy title, “Keep the Change Please.”) A failure to understand and manage the complex processes of change can lead to a major workplace meltdown.
I am always struck by how little people understand about the stages of adult changes or transitions. Change is never easy as we move through the predictable stages of endings, middle zones, and beginnings. People panic and seek refuge in the comfortable past, rather than working together to implement the changes that are relevant for the organization. That’s why I suggest that scheduling a workshop or two on processes of change is essential if you want to maintain workplace health.
- Build a culture of supportive feedback
Too often, we get trapped in repetitive cycles of defensive communication. Active listening breaks down into circles of gossip and interpersonal triangles. Instead of working through problems early, clearly, and gently with honest adult communication, we regress to the elementary schoolyard stage. To put it bluntly, we find ourselves in what some call a BMW culture…Bitching, Moaning, and Whining.
In a healthy organization, people feel free to express themselves without fear. And they have the skills to do just that. They have learned to provide their colleagues–up, down, and sideways sideways—with supportive feedback about performance and relationships. They know how to avoid triangles, and they know how to make appropriate requests for changes when necessary
- Embrace meaningful facts and measures
Meaningful and relevant facts can help ground our discussions and differences of perception. That’s why accurate, user-friendly record-keeping about the work we do and the outcomes we produce is so important in the long run. We need to document our work using appropriate information technologies. Accurate documentation helps enormously in accountability and performance reviews, as well as those times of trial when budgets are being reviewed.
But we need to remember that it is sometimes difficult to measure really important stuff. There’s an old adage in program evaluation: we can’t measure what’s important, so we give importance to what we can measure. So be careful and discerning in the measures that you choose to use.
- Laugh often and break bread together
Over the past decade, I have helped facilitate numerous staff retreats and professional development workshops. Those experiences have taught me two enduring lessons of healthy organizational life.
First, I’ve discovered that laughter, real authentic human laughter, is an essential ingredient in reducing the stresses of the everyday
workplace grind. We need to learn to laugh at gaffes, hang-ups, and foibles, secure in the knowledge that no matter how hard we work at it, none of us will get out of life alive.
Secondly, I’ve come to understand that people who enjoy eating together rarely engage in interpersonal cannibalism. When we regularly break bread together, we seem to be less inclined to break each other. So make a point of enjoying good food together with
the members of your workplace community. The Carpe Diem sages had it right!
So there they are my friend. I hope you will recognize the themes that have appeared in a decade of my columns with your wonderful magazine. Here’s to the next 10 years!
With great affection, Sandy