Often, when you think of a positive work environment, the first image that comes to mind is that of the uber-rich Silicon Valley high tech companies, the ones with free catered meals, on-site gyms, masseurs, acupuncturists, aromatherapists. The ones with a candy wall, hydroponic vegetable gardens in the cafeterias, year-long parental leave, free housing, free cars, and the list goes on and on and on with perks ranging from bring your dog with you to work, to why bother ever leaving work – everything you need is right here.
While much of this is nice, and is, no doubt, a deciding point that causes a potential employee to choose to work for one company over another, all other things being equal, in reality, you don’t need a wall of candy or open bar happy hours every day to have a positive work environment.
If the internal workings of the organization - the policies, the way people are treated, the way people interact with each other - are toxic, no amount of company picnics, beer-bashes, or on-site yoga sessions will compensate for it. If the environment is rife with harassment, with discrimination, with bullying, lies and rumors, hydroponically-grown heirloom lettuce isn’t going to fix things, isn’t going to make it a place worth giving your best to, isn’t even going to make it a place worth staying in.
Research on employee engagement and organizational culture shows that a truly positive work environment is a place where people feel supported, where they’re happy to come to work, where they can focus on the projects at hand without having to look over their shoulder for a knife in their back, where they can be creative, where they can innovate, where they are treated with respect, where they have opportunities to grow and to learn and to fulfill more and more of their true potential each day, where they derive a sense of meaning from their work and from the work their organization does. Yes, it also includes fair compensation and benefits for the work done. Of course it does. That’s part of respect. And if there are generous vacation and family and sick leave policies, so much the better.
Creating a positive work environment doesn’t begin with a company yacht, it begins with a transformed approach to leadership. As such, it is within reach of even the most cash-strapped organizations, and in fact is a strategy that any organization concerned with its bottom line should undertake. According to the Gallup “State of the American Workplace” survey, (Gallup, 2017) organizations whose work environments foster higher levels of employee engagement experience 21% higher levels of profitability, 17% higher levels of productivity, and significantly lower levels of absenteeism and turnover than their toxic counterparts. A positive work environment, then, is not a luxury, but a necessity for any organization that wants not to survive and to flourish in today’s challenging economy.
Early in my career, I had the experience of seeing all of this play out in real-life. I worked in an executive training center for Josh*, an incredible boss who treated everyone with enormous respect, and was truly interested in each person he encountered, whether employee, colleague or client. He cared about each person as an individual and he cared about their families as well, often asking how this one’s son was doing in his first semester at the Kennedy School, or how that employee’s brother was adjusting to his recent move overseas. Everyone was of equal worth in his eyes, and he treated each person like royalty. I once saw him introduce an ambassador to our custodian, pointing out how they shared a strong interest in chemical engineering and were both pursuing advanced study in the field. I also learned through the grapevine that he had given several thousands of dollars to a grad student who had financial problems. He’d also given a job and a way to safety to a young man who was being persecuted for his political beliefs in his home country. In short, he was an amazing, solid, good human being.
The work itself was fascinating – interacting with professionals from countries and cultures from around the world, traveling to different nations, being exposed to new and unusual experiences. I often said that I loved the work so much I would have done it for free. All of us there worked really, really hard. At the busiest times, we could easily be working 10 to 14 hour days, 6 to 7 days a week, but the thing was this – we worked not just because we enjoyed what we did, we worked not just for the money, we worked because we truly loved our director and wanted to see him succeed. To contribute to the success of the organization was to contribute to his success, and this is what we wanted. We would have done anything for him, simply because he was kind to us, he was good to us, he gave us opportunities to learn and to grow, he treated us with respect (even asking the most junior employees for their advice), and he would have given the shirt off his back for any one of us. We did it because he cared. There were no candy walls, no infinity pools on the roof, nothing like that. Just genuine, honest caring and respect.
Not surprisingly, in the space of just a few years, the center grew and grew and became increasingly profitable and innovative, expanding to serve countries throughout Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
Then one evening, I was alone in the office, working late, when I got a phone call. “Do you know if Josh was on that Pan Am flight 103 out of Frankfurt tonight? It went down in Scotland. It’s all over the news.”
And so began the most tragic evening of my work life – even to this date.
Our whole team worked doggedly through Christmas to support his family, to notify his many friends and colleagues around the world, to keep everything at the center going, to continue his work, as he would have wanted.
Some months later, a replacement was hired. As the universe would have it, he was the polar opposite of Josh. “You are all replaceable,” he began in his first meeting with us. “Organizations in DC go through people like you a million a minute.”
It all went downhill from there, and although I was technically still in the same job, in a few short months I went from having a job that I loved so much I would have been willing to do it for free, to having a job I hated so much, you couldn’t have paid me enough to stay.
Without going through the hellaciousness of this person’s reign, suffice it to say that in the space of a few years, most of Josh’s original team had been forced out or fired, and the whole center collapsed shortly thereafter.
Did all of this leave a mark on me? Sure it did. Not just because of Lockerbie and because of my sense of devastating personal and professional loss. Not just because of how miserable it was to work under a toxic boss. It impacted me because it all gave me first-hand lived knowledge of the power of respect, of kindness, of caring, in creating a positive workplace, and in creating a rich environment where all of the employees and the center itself thrived. It also demonstrated to me how dramatically different the identical workplace could be when positive leadership was replaced with toxic leadership – how negatively it affected each of us as employees, how negatively it affected the success of the organization itself, and how it ultimately led to its demise.
It taught me, then, as is supported by the research, that sustained organizational success isn’t achieved through threats, abuse and harassment, nor is it achieved through outrageous perks. It is achieved through leadership that prioritizes employee respect, support and growth, that creates an environment that makes it easy for employees to bring their best work, their best efforts to the organization. It is through this that both the employees and the organization will thrive and flourish.
*(Name has been changed.)
Gallup. (2017). The State of the American Workplace. Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/257549/state-american-workplace-report.aspx
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