There is a lot of talk about “company culture” these days. But what does that actually mean?

Have you ever noticed that when you manage by force, control, or coercion, and get caught up in focusing on “what’s wrong,” “what’s broken,” and, potentially, “who or what is to blame” your team gets defensive, protects themselves, and stays small, creating a company culture of fear and intimidation. 

But when you’re more open to other possibilities, collaboration and including them in the process, you’re better able to foster the conditions for improvement, creation, and growth. 

You create the opportunity to turn any unhealthy energy around. As you do this more, you’ll come to see your team as a goldmine of possibility. 

Senior as well as junior employees begin to feel heard and appreciated in a new, deeper way, giving them buy-in to the process and, ultimately, solution. Creating a culture of inclusion, creativity and collaboration. 

This is how you change your team’s culture. Not with ping pong tables, and beers on Friday afternoon. It’s about fostering a safe and inclusive environment where every team member’s contribution is valued and appreciated.

If you’re interested in improving your team’s culture and learning how you can create a shift from the top down, I’ll tell you what I tell my clients…

Creating A Shift From The Top Down?

To foster a more engaged environment where your team works collaboratively and creatively to successfully tackle challenges head on, while also helping them develop into future leaders of the company, start by emotionally connecting with your employees more and motivating them through purpose and values, offering them sought-after mental challenge and growth opportunities, aligning work to strengths, and fostering a workplace culture that encourages curiosity, rewards openness to differing perspectives and new alternatives, and celebrates success as well as “noble” failure. 

Start by asking your employees these six questions.

Then genuinely listen to understand, and lean in with compassion, acknowledging and validating, and always seeking to enhance your employees’ development in ways that unlock their potential, creativity, and sense of purpose.

1. Foster Psychological Safety 

Create a safe environment where issues and differences can be discussed openly. If your employees are worried about the repercussions of sharing their observations and suggestions, they cannot be truthful. Remove that fear by explicitly giving them permission to give you feedback, and most importantly, receiving it with openness, and a willingness to modify your behavior. Listening well demonstrates that you respect others, and is the first step in building greater trust and rapport.

2. Cultivate Presence

Clear away all distractions like phones and laptops to better focus your attention on the other person and making appropriate eye-contact. The quality of your presence contributes to employees feeling seen, and valued for who they are, their differences, and contributions, not just for what KPIs they hit. And that can fuel a pivotal shift in any company or career.

3. Prioritize Understanding

Seek to understand the substance of what the other person is saying. Capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues to confirm that your understanding is correct, rather than listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, to have your opinions validated, or using their silence as a chance to prepare your next response. Good listening is a two-way dialogue and the best conversations are active.

4. Practice Mindful Awareness

Pay attention not only to what your employee is saying, but also to what’s NOT being said—his tone of voice, energy level, feelings, etc. Absorb all sensory components and intuitively connect to your employee’s real message. While most people won’t overtly verbalize opposition or disagreement, they will almost always deliver a clear message with their non-verbals.

5. “Hold Space”

Tune into the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand, and identify and acknowledge them. Empathize with and validate those feelings in a supportive, nonjudgmental way. And, if you’re an old-school boss who believes expressing emotion will weaken your stature, or authority as a leader, research shows the more people express their emotions, the higher they are in “emotional intelligence,” and the more effective they will be in whatever they do.

At it’s core, “holding space” is about acknowledging and validating another person. To begin practicing this in your life, try these “holding space” one-liners the next time you find yourself on the receiving end of a frustrated team member, wife, EA, or even child: 

Start with:

  • “Let me see if I get this…”
  • “What I’m hearing you say is…” 
  • “Thank you for telling me”

Followed up by: 

  • “I can understand why you feel that way”
  • “Hmm, that must feel frustrating” 
  • “I can see this is really getting to you”
  • “That sounds really hard”

When we validate someone, we let them know they have the right to feel the way they do. Validating allows a person to release energy and feel “normal”. And don’t we all want to feel normal? To feel like we aren’t the only one.

6. Encourage Insight & Offer Support

Periodically ask questions that encourage discovery and insight, gently challenging your employee’s old assumptions in a productive way that helps him to see the issue in a new light. When great leaders challenge assumptions and disagree, your employee feels you’re trying to help, rather than win an argument. If you’re combative or overly critical, and then try to give advice, you may not be seen as trustworthy.

If you find yourself struggling to regulate your emotions and set the tone of your organization by leading in a more conscious way, feel free to reach out and see how I might be able to help you sharpen your tools to lead more effectively.

Or check out these other musings:

Building Trust And Loyalty The Office

Great Leaders Ask Great Questions, And Listen Even Better

3 Ways To Foster A Psychologically Safe Workplace Culture