The business of caring in business - why employee wellbeing in a post-COVID corporate culture matters more than ever

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer March 16, 2021
Summary:
Creating a great company culture involves more than just changing the colors in the company’s logo. It takes a bit more thought, consideration and planning. Enter Lorna Borenstein and her new book on the subject.

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A couple of months ago, I caught up with CEO Lorna Borenstein, CEO of engagement and employee wellbeing solution provider Grokker.  On that call, she intimated that she was working on a book on caring for/about employees, a topic that definitely takes on more urgency these days as Work From Home (WFH) employees are possibly feeling unloved, neglected and isolated. In an age where employers struggle to find and retain great talent, this issue is crucial.

Borenstein's book is atypical of many HR books that land on my desk - it’s well-structured, researched and moves the reader through the issues at a good clip.  It’s also a good read as it explains why businesses that resemble a 1960’s television show are outdated in the way they manage and help their employees. The world changed and management thinking needs to change, too.   

Here’s my interview with Lorna as we discuss her book, “It’s Personal – The Business Case for Caring”.

 

I’ve written about how the best leaders create a work environment that makes people want to stick around years longer than they otherwise would have. And, that’s all about creating a great work environment and not just throwing money at the people. Your book seems to confirm that. What are the best things leaders can do to make that environment a reality?

Borenstein:

First of all employers need to create their own, unique cultures that are authentic to their mission and vision as well as to the behaviors and norms they exhibit and are prepared to reinforce day in and day out. If an authentic part of that culture is taking an active role in supporting their employees’ health and happiness, and leadership is prepared to walk the talk and both reward positive behaviors while decisively punishing those that contravene the culture, well then you have a fighting chance at creating the kind of environment that attracts the best talent and keeps them around. You see your insides need to match your outsides, so if you don’t have that top-down belief in caring for your people, then there is not much anyone can do to help. COVID-19 has made helping your employees thrive physically and emotionally more important than ever before, and there are three things that leadership can implement quickly. 

Firstly, state your commitment. Let your workforce know that you understand what they’re going through, and that you are resolved to help them when they struggle with stress and overwhelm. You need to tell them and keep telling them because they need to hear you say it and mean it over the long haul. At the end of the day culture is about shared values and mutual trust, respect and unconditional positive regard. So choose your words intentionally and then do what you say. 

Secondly, lead by example and show empathy. Employees are looking to leadership to normalize mental health and work-life imbalance, as well as demonstrate self-care. By “parenting out loud” or sharing stories of their own emotional challenges and how they are coping or failing, leaders can destigmatize the struggle and encourage others to feel more comfortable sharing their own concerns before it becomes unmanageable. 

Thirdly, give them permission and offer on-demand tools. Provide resources that make managing stress an easy and convenient part of your employees’ work-from-home workday. Ensure they have access to content across all of the interconnected areas of wellbeing, from fitness and nutrition to mental health and financial wellness. Then make sure leadership is using the toolkit and talking about it, maybe even incorporating a 5-minute stretch break or mindfulness video at the start of team meetings, to make it nor just ok, but desirable for everyone to do the same.

You discussed ‘silent leaving’ – a situation where workers move on without telegraphing any clues to their managers beforehand. Employers who don’t check in with their team periodically shouldn’t be surprised when this happens. The fact that it happens at all would suggest that employees would not be comfortable airing their concerns for fear of early termination or other action. How do leaders build/rebuild the kind of trust to stop the silent leaving?

Borenstein: 

I write about this in my book and use a famous marketing truism, “Show, don’t tell.” First, you need to create a psychologically safe work environment for employees to give and seek support as well as receive and provide feedback. To do this, leadership must reinforce that it is a sign of courage, not weakness, to ask for help or request a change in an unfair business practice, and your willingness as a leader to show vulnerability rather than merely exert control, demonstrates your trust in them and can create a community bond. It requires vigilance to demonstrate that seeking and lending support inures to your benefit at the company, so your rewards and disciplinary actions must back this up or else no one will take the risk. So, how do you do that? You listen, link and live. 

Listen to your employees. Understand who they are and what they need, both the big things and the small. Ask big things like “what matters most to you and your family?” “What would you most like to see change in our business practices?” ”What can we do to make you feel better supported?”

Link your culture to your purpose. Employees need to feel that they intuitively understand the connection between your company’s mission and its culture. As Caryn Marooney alluded to in her guest perspective in chapter 1, link your inside worker-facing world with your outside brand. 

And live your values. Live up to what you say. Live up to your own expectations. Values aren’t just posters you put up on the wall. It’s the way you operate every day. I bring up my company’s values in the first job interview, because cultural fit is as important to me as skill.

You mentioned in your book that people leave firms (up to 50% of the time) due to bad bosses. Your book didn’t push that observation much. You did talk about companies who publicly espouse one set of values but live another. So, how does a company create a great culture and have engaged workers if there are managers who act contrary to these goals?

Borenstein: 

By solving the bad boss problem. Identify who they are - people may not complain, in fact my experience is that they don't but instead just begin quietly exploring the market for their next job. I call it the Silent Revolution, so you may need to conduct 360s and get good at reading between the lines. Read the room: what is the department’s general mood or demeanor and how homogeneous are the teams within it? Are top performers thriving under these managers? Ask questions, privately or even through anonymous surveys, and listen. In general, we all know who our problem bosses are, they are typically brilliant at their discipline and deliver results, but you cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the cultural havoc in their wake. 

Talk to the bad boss - listen, but this is a time to talk as well. Make clear what the issues are, provide examples, and explain what they need to do to resolve them, what you are prepared to do to help them, and how and when you will specifically evaluate their progress in order to ensure they are respecting the norms, behaviors and values you are prioritizing in your culture.

If they don’t make the change, make the cut - as difficult as it may be to replace a seemingly irreplaceable employee, that pain is temporary. The benefit to the individuals who will no longer have to interact with a bad boss and the cultural benefits of exiting a detractor will translate into benefits to the entire company.

Another concern of mine was what happens when a company has a subset of people that aren’t necessarily as focused, engaged, etc. as they should be? Some clearly need some support, and you document that in your book. But what should happen to those employees/managers who won’t change and are disruptive or counterproductive to the goals you put forth in your book?

Borenstein: 

An organization is just like any other living organism and its component parts are the workers. As such, workers will do whatever they need to survive and thrive in your business, and behave in whatever manner helps them to succeed. If negative behavior and agitating has historically achieved results for leaders, then that is what their subordinates and peers will do. If brilliant assholes are rewarded with bonuses and promotions they will permeate your company until you demonstrate a new kind of corporate backbone and weed them out.  

Before trying to set a major change in motion, you will want to assess the magnitude of the problem - for instance is this an isolated group of bad actors or is their negative behavior feeding off of one another and spreading? Is there a ringleader who either needs to be removed from the situation, or who can be recruited to lead the team into the light? Would assigning individuals to other, better adjusted work groups, projects or teams benefit them? 

After that, you need to set your culture and behavior change goals.  To do so successfully and ensure it sticks, your goals need to be S.M.A.R.T. - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. You’ve set and achieved plenty of goals before, so be confident, you got this.

In the book you reference a French firm where three executives got jail sentences for creating a work environment so bad that 35 employees committed suicide. I imagine you could have done a whole book on the consequences of hostile leaders and the papers are full of stories of executives and politicians abusing their authority.  Talk a moment about what companies can do to make employees feel safe in reporting these kinds of issues.

Borenstein: 

To engender a culture where employees trust in management, they need to feel safe to be themselves and safe to speak their truth. Employees need to know that complaints will be handled with care, discretion and integrity for all parties. As I shared in my book, when I was at HP as a young manager, I was sexually harassed by a very senior executive. I trusted my manager so much that I immediately shared what had happened. My manager encouraged me to report it to HR because this was a serious allegation and I deserved support. When I reported it, the matter was handled with a tremendous amount of respect and sensitivity to all involved. That is the gold standard leaders should strive for. 

It requires that all managers believe and reflect the corporate culture of trust and respect for the individual. It requires employees and leaders alike to feel that they are the shepherds of the corporate wellbeing and that we owe it to ourselves, our peers and the company to safeguard the culture by ferreting out behaviors that threaten to harm the greater good. A company is a living breathing organism, and if the organism’s survival depends upon values-based behaviors and norms, that is what the employees will protect. The evil doers will be weeded out because the community of workers will be the guardians of the corporate culture. Culture is what happens when management isn’t in the room. 

This means you must have easy ways to raise concerns, to ask for help, and to report problems and have an efficient manner of following up, investigating and handling these often delicate matters. Inaction will totally undermine you here. So, act fairly and decisively, and make those actions known. 

You may also want to take it a step further and create Employee Resource Groups to encourage employees to support one another in ways they need, and this in turn will give them a greater sense of community. That sense of belonging is magic to a corporation. When your people are here, your tribe, you don’t want to mess it up. 

Finally, let’s talk about the alumni of a firm. If an employee has left a firm, how could the employer ever get them back? How could a firm prove to its former employees that it has mended it ways?

Borenstein: 

Hopefully by now it’s clear that culture is everything. In truth, I think anyone who leaves an employer because of a bad culture, is quite unlikely to return, period. So, my best advice here is to get it right starting now. It isn’t so much about winning people back, as it is about keeping those you have now and securing a better future for all. If the culture is healthy and vibrant, people will see it, feel it, and show up wanting to give you their best. 

When employees do leave, which is only natural over time, make sure to celebrate their accomplishments as they leave for a new chapter in their career.  Don’t slam the door behind them on their way out. Make sure they know they will always be a part of the family even after they’ve left. And make sure they know they were and still are valued. Stay in touch - even if it’s just an occasional thumbs up on LinkedIn. You may get a few boomerangs, but if you take care of your culture and people feel you genuinely care, you will lose fewer and keep them a whole lot longer.

My take

At some point in my twenties, I was given a 96-person IT project team. That enormous custom development effort was to last for 2 ½ years. About a year into the effort, I realized that we were going to make it. We had the technology, design and more figured out. The code was getting built and it was working well. But, I realized that I needed to adjust my management style. Knowing we could technically succeed didn’t mean that we would because we needed everyone to make the 2 ½ year journey. I had to create a work environment that people took pride in. They needed to enjoy work and know they and their efforts were appreciated.

It was in that clarifying moment that I realized that I had to deal with each person on their own while also creating a success culture for the team. When the project ended, we not only had a wildly successful conversion, we also finished the project over 2 months ahead of time and under-budget. Individual team members went on to be some of the most successful IT people in that firm. Even my client sponsor managed to get two promotions because of what the team delivered.

Creating a great work environment takes empathy, clarity of purpose, time to know your team and imagination. In the 96-person team above, we had every possible kind of person, quirk and potential problem child but we also some outright geniuses, too. The challenge was to find everyone’s strengths and play to those. Helping people see the connection between their contribution and the big-picture was a key to-do as well but the biggest change was to solicit everyone’s ideas and to see that people had an impact on the final product.

I really appreciated that Lorna’s book wasn’t a one-dimensional, one-note book. It guides the reader as to how to make the case for change, how to sell it, and, how to create the culture you want. But maybe the best aspect of the book is that it’s not just for a CEO, the lessons can be applied to any manager, director, supervisor, etc. The lessons can even apply to a 20-something year-old who gets thrown a 96-person project to lead...