Improve Workplace Culture Through Better Conversations

Improve Workplace Culture Through Better Conversations

Many leaders claim they want to improve workplace culture, but what does it take to put this into action?

How do you keep teams engaged and energized enough to tackle big challenges?

Creating a flourishing workplace culture is an ongoing process of open conversations and empowering action. Here are a few considerations for managers who want to create a more positive and supportive work environment.

Does your team feel comfortable sharing ideas?

On a first consulting call with an organization, I noticed that people were strangely quiet. The project manager seemed to be taking a backseat to the Director who was running the meeting.
We were moving through the agenda items at a fast pace, as there was not much discussion or input from the group. It didn’t feel good. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what the issue was, but I left the meeting feeling a little depressed.

Afterward, I got an email from one of the team members asking me to take a project forward. I commended her on what a creative idea it was and suggested that she send it to the project leader and the director.

She said: “I would prefer if you take it forward, because the last time I made a suggestion, the experience was quite humiliating.”

When I hear employees use words like “humiliating” to describe interactions with supervisors, I’m almost certain this hints at a significant amount of micromanaging and maybe even bullying.

When good ideas and suggestions are shut down with depreciative and critical responses, people cannot contribute their best.

Does behaviour match the company’s organizational values?

In another situation, I was working with a contractor on an event. He was doing an amazing job meeting our goals.

Because of this success, I ignored some of the negativity in the conversations he had with others on the team. But after a certain point, the tone of his words made me feel I needed to step in.

To set an example of how to improve workplace culture, I chose to take an appreciative and positive approach, commending him on the remarkable job he was doing to help us create a successful event.

I asked questions and discussed organizational values with him, and how they guided day-to-day operations. We established that some of his conversations did not fit with the company values.

I asked him “Where do you think we should go from here?” I left it in his court to decide what would be in his best interests and that of the organization.

He decided to shift his behaviour. And he apologized.

The shift in his behaviour continued past our work together on this event, and I would hire him again in a heartbeat.

I made a point of asking generative questions, which encouraged him to shift his mindset and potential. The conversation I had with him was appreciative, intentional, and instructional.

These were conversations worth having, which served to improve workplace culture.

Are you leading meaningful, positive conversations in the workplace?

In the book Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement, authors Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres, tell us “a single conversation is a micro-movement that can create a macro movement!”

The authors suggest that all conversations end up in one of four quadrants (per the diagram below):

  1. Affirmative (e.g., “I prefer option B because it gives us more flexibility.”)
  2. Destructive (e.g., “Your work is sloppy, and you will never amount to anything in this
  3. Critical (e.g., “Why are you always late?”)
  4. Conversations Worth Having, which are both appreciative and inquiry-based (e.g., “What ideas do you have for making this project more efficient?”)

In Story 1 above, the conversation was critical, depreciative, and destructive and the result was a team that fell apart and was not productive.

In the second story, although constructive feedback was clearly needed, the conversation was mostly affirmative and inquiry-based and became a “conversation worth having” that was more likely to improve workplace culture.

© Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement by Cheri B. Torres and Jacquieline M. Stavros, 2018


Leaders Need to Be Courageous in their Conversations

In her book Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., Brené Brown shares interviews that she and her research team conducted with senior leaders from around the world.

They were asked to share their opinions of what needs to change about the way people are leading organizations today. The number one answer boiled down to this: “We need braver leaders and more courageous cultures.”

Specifically, leaders said that one of the behaviours that get in the way in organizations globally is avoiding tough conversations and avoidance of giving honest, productive feedback. Brown says, “We have a cultural norm of being nice and polite.” (And this wasn’t even Canada she was referring to! It happens in organizations all around the globe.)

Thus in many cases, the key to improving workplace culture lies in changing the nature of our conversations.

Two Simple Practices to Improve Workplace Culture

Leaders can have more courageous conversations when they are fully aware of how their conversations go, asking questions such as:

  • Are our conversations primarily negative or positive?
  • Do our conversations focus on what’s going wrong or what might be possible?
  • Do we ask questions in these conversations?
  • How do we give and receive feedback? Do we avoid it? If so, what keeps us from giving and receiving good feedback?

Two things you can do to change your conversations are:

  1. Positively framing the conversations, and
  2. Learning to ask generative questions to shift the dynamics of the conversation.

To positively frame the conversation, focus on where you want it to go (your vision) instead of the problem. Intentionally shape the conversation to invite engagement. You do this by asking generative questions.

Generative questions help surface new information and knowledge, gain a fresh perspective, and focus the conversation on what might be possible.

A few examples of generative questions are:

  • What have we learned from this experience?
  • What else might be true?
  • What small action can we take to move things forward?

How are you offering and receiving feedback?

A big part of our workplace conversation also involves being able to provide and receive effective feedback.

Feedback is one of the best ways to improve workplace culture, and in order to do that, we need to change feedback avoidance patterns.

Here are a couple of ways to do this:

  • Try giving feedback at the moment. When you catch someone doing things right, tell them! If you see that an improvement can be made, mention it right away. Perhaps say, “This is what I like about what you’re doing (e.g., Your sales goals are met each month) AND (not BUT) here is a suggestion about how you can improve (e.g., participating more in weekly meetings.)
  • Try accepting positive feedback with gratitude. (E.g. When someone compliments your work, say, “Thank you so much. That means a lot to me.” Try not to discount it or deflect the feedback.

Learning to change the conversations in your workplace can improve workplace culture in significant ways. At work, we are almost always engaged in internal dialogue or external interactions.

Those conversations influence our personal well-being and the well-being of our teams and the organization as a whole.

As Dee Hock, Founder of Visa, says, “Our organizational lives and the lives of others flourish or flounder one conversation at a time!”

Create a Culture of Flourishing People

Flourishing people are more open and innovative. They contribute their best, see more possibilities, and are more proactive, all of which further serve to improve workplace culture.

To create a flourishing culture in your organization, start to become aware of the conversations you are having and use these suggestions to shift your culture, one conversation at a time.

Follow this blog for bi-weekly ideas to create your “better place to work.”

Interested in workplace culture? Sign up for my Conversations Worth Having Course HERE.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you:

Are Your Blinders On?
This Is The Time For Resilience: A Helpful Checklist
Rowing A Weary Boat: Leading Your Team Through Rough Seas

This article was originally published in 2019 and has been updated in 2021. 

Deborah Connors

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. She is an engaging speaker, storyteller, author and coach.

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