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What does your senior leader say? Now, how does your senior leader actually act?

Bill Howatt is chief research and development officer of work-force productivity, Morneau Shepell, Toronto.

What kind of culture does your senior leadership promote?

It’s common practice today for senior leaders to endorse and promote a set of values that frame the kind of culture they expect and want for their organization. Culture is ultimately the acceptable social norms as to how employees and leaders interact and treat each other, as well as how they behave with their customers and suppliers.

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As you ponder this question, note any gaps between what’s being promoted and what you’re experiencing. As the conversation on mental health continues to evolve in workplaces, one factor that has a big impact on employees’ happiness and stress level is the kind of culture they work in. Working together day in and day out can be hard because of constant change, miscommunication, different agendas, gaps in trust, debating, blaming and disagreeing. Such challenges that the average employee faces can influence their stress load and, ultimately, their mental health.

A healthy culture supports and promotes employees’ mental health. Such a culture is pro-active and has dedicated leaders who are interested in the employee experience with respect to what is and is not working. The senior leadership presence is obvious and the executive team is promoting, role modeling and enforcing the kinds of behaviours required to create the desired culture. They don’t take anything for granted and don’t blame employees; they accept that senior leaders set the tone and provide oversight.

Ultimately, culture is an outcome of what senior leaders allow. While some may disagree, the best organizations have CEOs who understand the importance of culture and their role in developing it. Senior leaders who are interested in what the average employee experiences is committed to monitoring risk factors and actions that may erode their vision.

When I was working on Wall Street, one chief executive in a large financial organization created a rule that every phone call had to be returned the same day. He did this because he observed some people returned calls based on who was calling, but he wanted every employee treated with the same level of respect. In fact, if he heard someone did not return a call, he called them and said something like, “Good afternoon. I hope you are well today. I understand you have not called back Jill Smith in Fixed Income. I’m happy to do this for you, if you would like.”

These famous CEO calls went through the culture like wildfire. A person only needed to get one of these to motivate them to honour the civil standard the CEO wanted set for his culture. It also taught the culture that he cared and was watching daily. His belief was it takes only seconds to tell someone if you’re too busy to do anything that day but you’re thinking of them and will get to them by X time.

On the other side of the continuum are unhealthy cultures. Some of these may be described as passive aggressive. A Booz Allen Hamilton study reported that over 25 per cent of all organization cultures have passive-aggressive attributes that have been allowed to grow.

Let’s explore what a passive-aggressive culture looks like. Some common behaviours found in such cultures are:

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  • Basic respect is not required or enforced by senior leadership.
  • The average employee is unsure if their emails or calls will ever get responded to.
  • There are clear cliques and favourites who are evaluated by a different set of standards.
  • Many employees do what they want as there rarely are any consequences.
  • Employees who are honest and direct are perceived as a threat.
  • There are unclear lines of authority and who is responsible.
  • Getting something done is often slow and requires senior leadership input.
  • Employees are often fearful to bring forth innovation or ideas out of fear they will be judged or ignored.
  • Employees often feel they are blamed for failure, and management seldom takes accountability for outcomes.
  • Most of the control is at the top and employees often don’t feel empowered to use their judgement.

These kinds of cultures wear down employees. Many come to work because they feel they must for financial reasons, not because they want to.

To move toward a healthy culture that promotes mental health, the first step is for senior leadership to be open to what employees really think about the leadership influence as seen through the average employee experience. Engagement surveys seldom get to the root cause, but measuring the 13 psychological health and safety factors can provide some meaningful insights. From this openness there are typically two or three things that the average employee would like to see done differently so they feel more valued and psychologically safe.

A culture can change in a minute through massive climate change by a CEO eliminating an unwanted behaviour and demonstrating their commitment to focus on desired behaviours until they’re ingrained into the culture.

It takes tenacity, constant follow-through and persistence on the part of the senior leadership and CEO to create a healthy culture. Once standards have been set and expectations are in place, the culture will change, based on what the average employee believes are the social norms expected and rewarded, and evidence that unaccepted behaviours will be corrected when breached.

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