I recently heard about a department that hired a very competent manager. She quit after two weeks because the culture of the department was so negative and unhealthy. She simply couldn’t stand working there after two short weeks. The department may have been checking off short-term things on the to-do list, but their overall effectiveness was low and decreasing rapidly.
The emotional and relational culture of the workplace drives organizational effectiveness to a significant extent. Because it’s hard to measure and not urgent, however, it often gets placed on the back burner as a “nice-to-have” aspect of the organization. Recent research suggests otherwise.
Drawing on the emerging field of Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), a recent study conducted by Kim Cameron, Carlos Mora, Trevor Leutscher, and Margaret Calarco, published in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science*, found that “positive” practices improve employee and organizational performance.
They compared nursing units that improved the most on positive practices (top quartile) to those that improved the least (bottom quartile). In general, performance improved more for the units that improved in positive practices more.
The top positive practice units showed a 26% increase in patient satisfaction with pain management and willingness to recommend the organization compared to units that improved the least in positive practices.
They found even stronger effects of positive practice improvement on organizational climate and nurses’ daily work. For example, when looking at overall climate, participation in hospital affairs, foundations for quality care, support of nurses by managers, resource adequacy, and nurse-physician relations, the top improving units showed a 35% improvement or more when compared to lowest improving units (in positive practices).
The biggest predictors of improved effectiveness were:
- compassionate support for employees
- emphasizing positive and inspiring messages to employees
- forgiving mistakes
- expressing gratitude to and confidence in employees
- articulating the meaningfulness of the work being done
- reinforcing an environment characterized by respect and integrity
What’s at the core of these “positive” practices? Connection. Connecting to your co-workers and to meaning in your work are at the very heart of the “positivity” in organizations. When this becomes the norm, you get a connected culture and organization that thrives.
Leaders are responsible for setting the tone for the organizational culture. But everyone has a responsibility to contribute to a healthy, connected organization. Even if you’re not in a formal leadership position, if you promote connection, you’ll make a positive impact, and you’ll have that X factor that healthy organizations are looking for.
But here’s the sticking point: while these practices may be easy to understand, they require a lot of work and effort to develop in your own life and to promote in your organization. They don’t come easily because they all involve relationships and relationships are messy and unpredictable. Here are 6 reflections to help you put these connection practices into action.
1. Put empathy into action. Compassion is sometimes thought of as empathy in action. It involves three steps: notice, feel, act. You have to be intentional about creating space in your life and work to first notice others and what they are going through. Once you notice, tune into others’ feelings. Finally, put your empathic feelings into action by expressing your empathy to them. In addition, provide practical support when you can.
2. Privilege the positive. Articulate what is going well and how you appreciate others as individuals and what they do. This doesn’t mean you ignore problems, but be quick to focus on the positive. When you do this, you generate positive emotions that others “catch” and this creates a positive spiral that transforms an organization into a more compassionate place.
3. Forgive Liberally. We’ve all need forgiveness at one time or another. And we all need to forgive others. Think of an experience when you felt deeply forgiven by another person. How did that experience affect you? How did you carry that experience forward into that relationship and other relationships?
Are there particular people you are struggling to forgive now? Why do you think you are struggling? What hinders you from letting go of the hurt, bitterness, etc.? Try to think about the situation from the other person’s perspective.
4. Express gratitude. Reflect on the things about your co-workers for which you’re grateful. But then take it one step further. Express your gratitude to them. In fact, consider writing a gratitude letter to someone at work. I received a gratitude letter from my boss a few years back. It came out of the blue and it was one of the most encouraging things that has ever happened to me in my work life. When gratitude moves from an internal feeling to a relational interaction, it does wonders for amplifying positive emotions.
5. Create meaning. Meaning relates to a leader’s ability to motivate him or herself and others. In research by McKinsey (Beyond Performance, p. 184), leaders who scored high on meaning felt a deep personal commitment to the work they do, and pursue their goals with energy and enthusiasm. They know their strengths, use them to the best of their ability, enjoy their work, and inspire others to do the same.
What is it about your work that is personally and specifically meaningful to you? Share that with your team.
Part of creating meaning is modeling your own sense of meaning and commitment to the overall goals of the team. Then help others create and find meaning in their own roles.
6. Show deep respect for every person. Everyone deserves your respect. To help create a culture of respect, you have to model treating everyone with respect, no matter what their level in the organization. This often comes down to the little things. Be present. Listen. Acknowledge others’ feelings. Provide support.
If you can put these practices into action, you will move toward a connected culture that will improve your organization’s effectiveness and create an enjoyable place to work.
* Kim Cameron, Carlos Mora, Trevor Leutscher, and Margaret Calarco (2011). Effects of Positive Practices on Organizational Effectiveness. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Sciences, 47(3), 266-308.