A keg in the breakroom, fish tanks in the walls, happy hours, ping pong, cornhole, bean bag chairs…sounds like a fun work environment, right?
I don't think anyone would complain about these types of perks. And I get why companies often incorporate them. They can be reflective of the company's culture and values, and incentives like happy hour can give everyone a chance to get to know each other on a more personal level. But if you think a happy hour or a ping pong table is going to increase engagement, produce business results, and help retain talent, you may want to reassess your approach.
An issue arises when these incentives are put in place with the belief that they will somehow shift a company's culture. I'm here to tell you they won't. Lurking just beneath what looks like a fun place to work could be deep culture problems that fun perks cannot solve.
I once worked for a company that made a substantial effort to weave in these kinds of perks and communicated that the intention was to improve company culture. We went to happy hours, social events, and played games. But it wasn't addressing the root cause of the cultural problems we were having: ineffective conversations.
In a clique-ish way, relationships were flourishing. But these relationships were siloed within teams and weren't representative of the organization as a whole. For example, in my department, culture grew "organically," meaning we all bonded together without the insertion of cultural initiatives. Friendships grew naturally, and candor was the literal lifeblood of our team. Many of us stayed in the company longer than we would have because of these relationships. Regardless, turnover rates were still relatively high, and conversations around why people were leaving revealed a pretty unanimous reason: ineffective and missing conversations with leadership, all the way from C-suite to team leads.
It wasn't that we didn't like our leaders, or that we somehow knew how to have conversations better than they did. It's that many people within the organization, across all levels, were lacking the communication skills required to create a more cohesive culture built on trust.
As individual contributors, many of us did not feel comfortable initiating conversations and sharing our true thoughts and feelings with our leaders because the behavior wasn't being modeled. Many of the conversations that needed to happen weren't happening, and engagement suffered as a result. Employees often bonded together in the face of this frustration and many water cooler conversations were happening, which only led to more separation between leaders and employees. Most of the conversations and important decisions taking place among leaders were being made behind closed doors, and leaders were not seeking input. This created a sense of separation and did nothing to build trust.
Here are some signs to look for to help identify if your organization's culture is in need of a new approach:
Everyone within an organization makes up the culture, not just leaders, and it's the responsibility of every individual to be courageous and have the conversations that matter. When leaders do not model the behavior, it sends a message that perhaps the conversations we need to have may not be safe to have. There's a lot at stake when this is the case. Employees don't want to lose their jobs or be reprimanded over a conversation that didn't go well. When all parties are trained in having skillful conversations, however, it produces better results and a better culture. I've witnessed this firsthand here at Fierce. Knowing what to talk about and how to talk about it makes all the difference in creating this sense of trust and safety.
Your employees may be having a good ol' time with each other, but if the relationships between employees and leaders are underdeveloped or non-existent, it will still end in high turnover and dissatisfaction among employees.
If you want to transform your company culture, leaders need to know how to have conversations that matter. Here are a few that are mission critical:
1. Feedback – Leaders need to know how to deliver and request feedback in a way that facilitates development, improves performance, and encourages transparency. Anonymous or non-existent feedback is counterproductive to positive cultural change. Feedback needs to be an ongoing conversation, one that continually invites us to see what we may not see and invites others to see what they may not see.
2. Coach – When leaders can effectively coach without giving advice, it allows the coachee to gain powerful self-generated insights that will guide them to growth and solutions. Knowing the right questions to ask helps others chart their own developmental path and gain trust in themselves.
3. Confront – Confrontation is an essential conversation skill for leaders. To strengthen relationships and increase transparency, they need to know how to approach issues and go shoulder-to-shoulder instead of head-to-head. When the confrontations taking place with an organization are successful, it leads to a culture of greater psychological safety where people across all levels feel comfortable bringing issues to the table.
4. Team – When leaders request input from their teams, they not only make better decisions, but they also tear down any detrimental communication barriers that may exist between teams and leadership. When perspectives are actively sought out, it creates the type of open environment necessary for employees to feel comfortable sharing what they really think and feel.
5. Delegate – When delegation is done skillfully, it gives employees an opportunity to drive their own growth and discuss with their leaders in what areas they would like to grow. This then allows leaders to be proactive where they're needed most and delegate some of their own tasks to their team members who are ready for a new challenge. Stress is mitigated when new tasks are chosen, rather than dictated from the top.
Real, open, honest conversations are what will allow leaders and employees to strengthen relationships, build trust, and tear down silos. When leaders initiate these conversations and model the behavior they want to see, it allows others to feel safe to speak up and shift their own behavior.
Games and booze-filled breakrooms do not determine the state of a culture. Relationships do. And the conversation is the relationship.
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