If content is king, maybe culture is queen

After two decades in my career as a medical communications specialist, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some amazing teams and clients, as well as the privilege of delivering ground-breaking projects and impacting the lives of patients and their supporters. But even with – or maybe because of – the vast experience I have gained over time, some job opportunities that look perfect on paper simply would not be a good ‘fit’ for me, and vice versa. As it turns out, even in a role where the work suits you down to the ground, sometimes, that alone isn’t enough.

Over the years, I have studied what’s valuable to myself and others in order to establish a culture that is conducive to achieving my primary business goal: to build and maintain a team of happy people doing amazing work. Alongside fulfilling work and a sense of purpose, I realised that most of the other ‘deal breakers’ are wholly dependent on workplace culture.

In short, while in this industry content may be King, I believe that culture is Queen.

What a difference a culture makes

“A workplace culture is the shared values, belief systems, attitudes and the set of assumptions that people in a workplace share. This is shaped by individual upbringing, social and cultural context. In a workplace, however, the leadership and the strategic organizational directions and management influence the workplace culture to a huge extent.” Forbes

It’s probably fair to say that most of us have born witness to, or even been victim of, a ‘toxic’ culture. This might be in the workplace, in an educational setting, in a healthcare setting, or within a family or relationship. Where in one work setting we might encounter a team of colleagues who chat, laugh, and appear comfortable and respectful in each other’s company, down the hall things can be very different – the atmosphere can be cut with a knife, someone is ruling with an iron fist, and everyone is unhappy. Which of these teams do you think produces the best results?

According to Forbes: “A positive workplace culture improves teamwork, raises the morale, increases productivity and efficiency, and enhances retention of the workforce. Job satisfaction, collaboration, and work performance are all enhanced. And, most importantly, a positive workplace environment reduces stress in employees.”

How do we build and maintain good culture in the workplace?

Culture – somewhat by definition – breeds and spreads according to the people and their environment. First let’s look at how NOT to do it:

  • Don’t become a dictatorship: a hierarchy where the majority of the workforce has no voice is a fast track to quashing ideas or enthusiasm – why bother speaking up when nobody listens? I know first-hand how demotivating this can be, having spent a short time around the middle point of my career in a team where the content ‘gatekeeper’ would not approve anything until she had essentially written it herself.
  • Don’t be a sweatshop: in the old days of ‘alpha’ leadership, workers often felt like putting in the hours was the only way to get noticed, and often this was true. But we don’t have to sell our souls to make an impact at work, and higher pay is not enough to make this worth it, at least not for the long haul. Expect high staff turnover if this is how you want your teams to work.
  • Avoid ‘us and them’ structures: beware of siloed workstreams lacking in team loyalty and comradery, as this breeds competition and can lead to a blame culture. When one role is always front of house while the other is kept in the back delivering the goods but seeing none of the glory, resentment will ensue. A happy team needs a multidisciplinary approach combined with a healthy dose of mutual respect for each other’s role.
  • Avoid cliques: when your face doesn’t fit, it can leave you feeling that you have to behave differently in order to get on in your career. There is nothing more soul destroying than having to spend 40+ hours a week pretending to be someone you’re not. This has become increasingly evident to me via the hiring process, where I have seen the effects that undervaluing differences in personalities and skillsets can have, ultimately leading good people to jump ship.

Instead, it’s time to adopt more of a ‘soft power’ approach. Coined in the late 1980s by Joseph Nye in the context of foreign policy and more recently brought into the leadership metaverse, ‘soft power’ refers to attracting and co-opting, rather than coercing; leading by example instead of issuing commands; providing a sense of community and belonging that will attract and keep the best talent and the happiest, most effective teams.

In some realms of politics and industry, this type of approach could be accused of being manipulative, and indeed, this may sometimes be the intention. But in my experience, soft power works best when it is born out of a healthy respect for humanity.

Some key elements that I have seen go a long way towards making soft power work for your teams are:

Building trust: Remember that happy team from earlier? You can bet they have a healthy amount of trust between them. Not the kind of trust you get from half a day of canoeing together; the kind you get from facing challenges together and supporting each other when the chips are down. Really trusting your team for the long haul can take the pressure off you AND them.

  • One way to build trust is with ‘supported autonomy’ – the sweet spot between micromanaged and up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Let them lead the way, but with the knowing that you’re there if they need you.
  • Encourage transparency, whether it be discussions around salaries or the need for an honest chat between teammates, no-one likes to feel as though they are being kept in the dark.
  • Don’t wait to be asked for reward or recognition – notice and show appreciation when people are excelling or going the extra mile to support their team.
  • My team aims to operate with a very flat structure, allowing everyone to have a voice and making leaders accessible and approachable without micromanaging

Promoting balance: Burnout is real, and can lead to the loss of key team members, so protect your team’s work/life balance at all costs, because you need them, and so do your clients.

  • Don’t reward people for the wrong things, such as staying late, working weekends, etc. Instead, reward people for supporting each other, asking for help and encouraging others to do the same, positive self-management of their work/life balance, and a consistent commitment to work quality and impact.  
  • Notice when people are stretched and be proactive on negotiating longer timelines or more resource when needed, in the spirit of delivering a better product.
  • Invest time to listen, commit to acting fast and communicate openly with one another
  • Find ways for your team to let off steam together after a busy or challenging period.
  • The leaders in our team structure are always mindful to model a good work/life balance, so as not to impose any undue pressure on team members to emulate bad working practices

Engaging human to human: The Dalai Lama advises meeting each person you encounter, whoever they may be, with the understanding that you are simply two equal human beings.

  • Get to know each other, find out about the human behind the work.
  • Embrace differences. Authenticity and the ability – the permission – to be oneself is key to being comfortable in a work environment and career.
  • Show compassion when things aren’t going well. Look beyond the issues and remember that most of your colleagues are there with the same intentions as you – to do a good job – so if it’s not happening for some reason, try to find out why and what you can do to help.
  • Throughout the various lockdowns, our team became bigger and more spread out, but we made an effort to carve out times in the working day to maintain human contact, including socials for new starters and to celebrate life events in each other’s lives. I’m glad to say we are maintaining these new traditions now that our offices are open, as they remind us that we are one team of many humans with work AND home lives that are worth celebrating.

Of course, no team or individual is perfect, and the pursuit of perfection can be damaging in itself (as seen above in some of the examples of how not to do it). Overall, just remember that everyone you work with has a life outside the office, so it’s important to consider the needs of the whole person if you want them to be a happy and productive part of your team.

And finally, remember that for soft power to really work for you, it has to be authentic. Look out for it within your teams, encourage it wherever you find it, and be sure to value it in new hires and seasoned teammates alike – it could be exactly what your workplace culture needs.

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