How to Build a Productive Culture

A colleague and I had coffee with a client the other week, discussing some issues he was having with his team. 

My colleague mentioned culture and I could see our client’s eyes rolling back into his head.

I knew why. He could see hours and hours of work being created for him and his leaders with no measurable outcomes. He’s probably worked with consultants on company culture millions of times and ended up with a set of values, and no practical tools to help make sure his employees live and breathe them. 

Let’s start by clearly defining culture. Culture’s oldest and simplest definition is “how the work gets done”.  

By understanding culture is about “how” things are done, it’s easier to understand why focusing on culture ensures optimal business performance. 

It’s how we serve our clients. It’s how we ask each other to do things.  It’s how we feel about going into work and interacting with the people we will see all day.  It’s how we lead and manage.  It’s how much of our discretionary energy we put into any important task. 

Everyone in the team should be facing in the same direction and working towards a shared purpose. We should all know where we are going, and how we are going to get there.

When something goes wrong, we should all be in it together.

Be clear about your values 

Your team’s core values define your culture.  They serve as behavioural guides for all of us to live by.  They tell us how we are going to achieve our purpose as a team. 

Why values are important:  

Our values guide our behaviours.  Hire people who already share your values, rather than trying to make people behave in a way that isn’t natural to them.  You can encourage employees to live by their values. 

How to establish values:  

Once you understand why your organisation exists and your purpose or mission (the why and the what), your next question is how. 

  • What is our vision?
  • Who do I need to hire?
  • How do we need to behave if we are to be successful? 
  • How will we delight our customers? 
  • How will we lead the market? 
  • How will we treat each other? 
  • How will we treat ourselves?
  • How will we be better tomorrow than we were today?
  • How do we act?
  • What are our habits?

Reward the right behaviours

Let’s be practical.  If you want people to behave in a particular way, you really need to incentivise them to do so.  Much of the time we fail to reward the right behaviours. 

What you measure and incentivise happens.  

Rewarding excellent work is much more productive than disciplining bad behaviour. 

It inspires the right behaviour across the team by leveraging positive action.

How to ensure you’re rewarding the right behaviours:  

Make sure your incentive program rewards the right actions.

For instance, most sales environments offer bonuses to employees only based on their individual financial results and then struggle to get staff to fulfil their compliance obligations, or support each other as a team. 

As leaders we may not have the opportunity to change our company reward systems but we can recognise positive contributions in other ways. 

Encourage group-wide productive habits (and do so one habit at a time)

One habit that has significantly changed the productivity of our team, is the habit of asking not to be disturbed when you’re working on something important.

We all love to chat, but no one gets offended if a teammate asks, “Can we talk about that later as I’m working on something important right now?” 

It might seem like a small thing but most workplaces don’t have cultures where one employee will say, “can we talk later?” to another without feeling guilty or having someone taking offence. When you have good relationships internally, you can ask for what you need without guilt, particularly when you realise it’s for the good of the team as much as for yourself.    

Why this works:  

When you get your whole team to commit to key habits together, you encourage a culture of collaboration.  Habits which encourage optimal productivity include:

  • Always start and finish meetings on time;
  • Discouraging needless email communication; and
  • Encourage team members to delegate work as soon as it hits their desk and not an hour before it’s due.

How to do it:

Slowly.  Agree to the habits that will make the most difference.  Gain agreement from everyone involved.  This requires communication, coaching and training and having all leaders agree and commit to change.

Focus on new habits one at a time.  Perhaps this month you should work on saving each person 1 to 2 hours per day by introducing “do not disturb” protocols. 

This may can include:

  • Using “do not disturb” signs or agreeing team members can use headphones to signal they are working on important tasks and can’t be disturbed;
  • Agreeing as a team no one will take offence if team members ask not to be interrupted; and
  • Encouraging each other to batch their questions rather than disturbing other team members by asking questions whenever they come to mind.

Next month gain further productivity improvements by introducing greater meeting disciplines. The following month have your team commit to start email batching.

Before you know it, your team will be operating like a well-oiled machine. 

Create a learning culture

Creating a learning culture is all about succession planning. 

Why this is important: 

Hiring for company culture is hard, particularly in leadership roles.  Growing talent from within allows you to maintain a productive culture with little productivity lost when there is turnover or growth. 

How to do it:  

Only hire people who will champion your values.  Provide formal and informal opportunities for coaching and development at all levels.  Encourage your leaders to take responsibility for attracting and developing talent for the firm.  If you want this to happen it needs to be included in KPIs.

At an individual level, be the person known for developing talent by supporting less experienced people in your business, and be known as the person who always takes time to learn from those who are more experienced.  

Create opportunities for the team to socialise (without alcohol!)

Visit our offices and you’ll see our team socialising in many different ways.  We eat together in our beautiful kitchens, we exercise together, and we might go bowling or play laser tag. 

Some of these events involve alcohol, but make sure they don’t always revolve around alcohol. 

Why it works:  

The members of our team are all different and come from various walks of life. If the only opportunities for us to socialise outside of work revolved around drinking we’d be less likely to know each other. Working together on common goals outside of our core business helps us to work together better in our day-to-day jobs.

How to do it:  

Create opportunities for your team to socialise.  Going to drinks every now and then is fine. It won’t necessarily challenge people to talk to people they wouldn’t normally socialise with.  Team activities like indoor rock climbing or charity days encourage people to work together in different ways.  It promotes the kind of understanding we need to have of one another if we want to have respectful and trusting relationships.   

Dealing with conflict

There’s a great exercise I learned from inkling women a while ago.  Firstly, you write a letter to the person who has upset you.  

At the top of the page you write the person’s name.  You then outline everything that has upset you starting each sentence either with “you should” or “you shouldn’t”.  

  • Write your letter to yourself: 

Dear  <Person’s Name>

You should…

You shouldn’t…


<Your Name>

Once you’ve finished the letter you cross out the other person’s name and write your own.

It’s a powerful exercise.  

If you’ve ever have someone ask you, “what are your values”?  You’ll find yourself coming up with clichés like integrity, client focus, and collaboration.  It’s much more powerful to identify your values when you’re frustrated or upset.

The people and things that annoy you have something to teach you.

Case Study: David and Cholena come to an understanding

Not too long ago I was working with a senior manager who continually took on work other people should have been doing.  She was reluctant to delegate to others, to set boundaries or decline work she shouldn’t have been doing.

During one of our coaching sessions we talked about a woman who was constantly pushing back.  She would say things like “that work is beneath me” or “that’s not the work I’m best at.” While her colleague’s delivery wasn’t ideal, I put it to her that she might have something to learn from her colleague.

She started speaking up for herself more at work, allowing her to finally reclaim her weekends for herself and her partner.

“You have to give her points for standing up for herself.  What can you learn from her?”

Whenever I get annoyed at someone, a little voice in my head tells me to write a “you should letter”.  

A while ago I was working for a manager who was quite aggressive and direct.  I found it tough to work for him, however I valued his feedback.  It’s rare to have someone who will tell you exactly what they think and doesn’t pull any punches.

Having said that, I often found him frustrating.  He was based in Sydney, whereas my office is in Melbourne.  He had a habit of organising work trips to Melbourne without telling me.  I’d find out he was coming to Melbourne the day before he was due to arrive.

It annoyed me because I felt we could have maximised the trip had I been involved in the planning.  I could have introduced him to clients, organised time with the team, and booked in some one-on-one time.

I decided to talk to him about it. I started the conversation by asking a question (seek to understand before you seek to be understood).  The question was, “how can we work better together?”

His response was, “well, it would be great if you could let me know when you’re going to be in Sydney.  I don’t know you’re coming. You just turn up in the office.”

Lesson learned.  The people and things that annoy you have something to teach you.  We got out our diaries and planned our next two months of travel together.

When you complete this exercise, ask:

  • What did you learn about your values?
  • Do you always demonstrate these values?
  • What’s your next logical step?

Calls to action:

  • Determine your company values and think about how you can encourage and reward the right behaviours within your teams

Habits to work on:

  • Take time to call out and reward behaviour based upon company values
  • Use the three-lens approach and the “you should” letter to help ensure you’re looking at conflict from multiple angles

Let us know how you go.

Keep moving forward,

Cholena xo

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