3.16.2021 17:14
Career advice

Why Great Workplace Culture Starts with Good Leadership

Why Great Workplace Culture Starts with Good Leadership


Michael Catford

November 11, 2019

Career advice

An organisation’s workplace culture is by its very definition a group effort. It will reflect the level of buy-in from employees – if the entire organisation is inspired by and commits to a strong and healthy workplace culture, it will be so. And if staff are indifferent, the culture will be too.

But to consider workplace culture as truly egalitarian, where everyone is equal, and each individual has as much sway on the outcome as any other, is to misunderstand its true nature. Modern day organisations – whether a non-profit, a multinational corporation or a local dive bar – are pyramids of power. The higher up the pyramid you are, the more influence you’ll exert on everything, including workplace culture.

It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that the CEO has more influence on culture than the janitor. But what is surprising is the amount of workplace leaders who are willing to pass the responsibility for workplace culture onto their employees, generally using the arguments cited above.

“It’s a team effort,” they’ll say, “and the team isn’t pulling its weight.”

But in truth, a lack of employee buy-in is almost always a reflection of how the organisation’s leaders treat workplace culture. If they’re so willing to pass the buck, why would the rest of the team be eager to accept it?

Happily some of Australia’s top companies are becoming ever more aware of a leader’s role in creating a strong and healthy company culture. We spoke to four leaders within such companies – Aaliah Eggins-Bryson of Telstra, James Telfer of Cognizant, and Allisa O’Connell and Carole Cooper of Flight Centre – about how company culture is influenced by leaders, and what their organisations are doing to ensure that influence is overwhelmingly positive.

Defining a great workplace culture

Our first task is to define that all too ambiguous term ‘workplace culture’, so that we can begin to understand the ingredients that make for a good one. In some minds you’re able to measure culture by counting the amount of ping pong tables or barista-level coffee machines in an office. Others will point to the nuts and bolts of the organisation, extolling the virtues of a flat company structure or an accessible CEO.

But in truth, a great workplace culture could be all, some or none of these things.

James Telfer, Associate director of Recruitment at Cognizant, knows this all too well. “A ‘good’ culture to me would be defined as a happy, engaged workforce which leads to high levels of discretionary effort and lower attrition,” he explains.

And while the recipe for such a workforce will obviously change from company to company, Telfer notes that there are generally some common threads.

“Workplaces that have good culture will typically employ an open and collaborative communication style, meaning that managers and staff are able to engage with each other without fear of getting it wrong or saying the wrong thing, and where teams are comfortable to openly share opinions, particularly in problem solving scenarios. Where authentic, caring relationships are formed between leader and employee, and people don’t feel as though they’re just a number.”

According to Telfer, the opposite is also true, and all too common. “Closed communication, non-inclusive, bullying or intimidating behaviours will not lead to a productive atmosphere or engaged teams that are willing to expend discretionary effort.”

In short, it’s not the material or even the structural sides of the workplace package that will define the culture, but rather those distinctly human (and all the more complex) elements.

The influence of leaders on workplace culture

So how do leaders influence company culture in real terms?

As GM of Product Experience and Operations at Telstra, Aaliah Eggins-Bryson has had the opportunity to both witness the influence that leaders have on company culture, and affect some of that influence herself.

“In my time at Telstra, I’ve worked closely with a number of leaders who have had (and still have) an enormous influence on the company culture. I’ve personally learnt a lot from them and try to replicate what they do.

“Simply put, the best leaders lead by example. They set the pace by personally demonstrating the behaviours that they expect from their teams, stakeholders and everyone else that they influence.”

Influencing company culture for the better can be surprisingly simple, says Eggins-Bryson, citing day-to-day examples like:

  • Having real conversations: “Not being afraid to have the difficult conversations and call things out when they’re not quite right. Getting off email and walking to a desk or picking up a phone… I’ve watched things go back and forth over email for weeks, when all it took in the end was one phone call.”
  • Creating a fun and energetic environment: “One where people genuinely enjoy working together.” Simple things like team incentives, in-office events and opportunities to socialise outside of working hours can all help to lift levels of fun and camaraderie within a team.
  • Trusting your team to deliver: “This is so important. Once teams are empowered to make their own decisions, it’s very liberating for everyone. As leaders we have to trust our people to make good decisions, even if they might not be the right ones – because next time it’s more than likely that they will make the right one, repurposing their energy and focus on the outcome, rather than the administrative burden of getting approval.”

What does it mean to be a leader?

In a very real way, understanding how leadership influences workplace culture begins with understanding the role of a leader. And while certain people might define a leader as ‘someone who leads’, it’s a little more nuanced than that.

Carole Cooper, Flight Centre’s Global Peopleworks Leader, and Allisa O’Connell, EGM of Flight Centre Brand Australia, see leadership through a somewhat different lens. They’ve worked their way up to their positions in a progressive and diverse company, but don’t often see that progressiveness and diversity reflected in other organisations that they work or compete with. Indeed, as women in leadership positions, they find themselves in a minority to this day.

But women often bring something unique and special to leadership roles, particularly in regards to workplace culture, as O’Connell notes. “Many women forget to bring their female strengths to the workplace – things that men can’t or won’t do, and which form part of our natural advantage as leaders.”

Cooper expands on this point. “Women have to work harder to achieve the same success (as men). We have to fight for the same wage, we have to fight against discrimination for having or wanting to have children. We believe that we need to behave like men to get the job.”

But, Cooper explains, qualities of compassion, authenticity and attentiveness, which seem to be far more prevalent in female leaders, are the exact traits that you should be looking for in a leader who will be able to inspire a strong, happy and productive company culture.

So what does it mean to be a leader? The qualities listed by Cooper are a great place to start. In short, good leaders are good people – the type that don’t demand that people follow them, but that are followed organically. Likewise, a good company culture can’t be demanded, it must be generated organically, albeit with focused effort on the leader’s part.

Telstra, Cognizant and Flight Centre’s focus on leaders and culture

So how do the respective organisations of our leaders put their words into action?

For O’Connell, Cooper and Flight Centre, the focus is on empowering female leaders, who will in turn empower their teams. In 2015, the female leaders within Flight Centre founded Womenwise, a network designed to do just that. The program has since been offered outside of the four walls of Flight Centre, to great acclaim.

Eggins-Bryson is overflowing with praise for her employer. “Telstra is by far the most supportive and inclusive workplace that I have ever worked in – in every single example that I can think of. Expectations about inclusiveness and support are just a constant – they get reinforced at every opportunity.” This reinforcement begins at the top, but such is its consistency that it flows right through the organisation, permeating every aspect.

Telfer says that Cognizant is appropriately cognisant about ensuring that a strong and supportive workplace culture is provided to its team. This begins by giving leaders the tools and structure to create said culture. According to Telfer, leaders are directed to “encourage discussion, schedule regular one-on-one meetings, conduct regular team meetings where people are actively encouraged to participate and contribute, host team building events, recognise contributions and celebrate successes, link performance to reward, regularly provide performance feedback, and plan meaningful development.”

Sure, creating a workplace culture is a team effort, but some team members have more power over the process than others. Recognising your influence as a leader is the first step to using that influence for good. By taking responsibility for workplace culture, rather than simply passing the buck, your organisation will have a far greater chance of being the commercial Utopia that every modern workplace hopes to be.

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