Building Company Culture in Times of Upheaval

3 common initiatives necessary to create and sustain a supportive work environment.

2016 was an interesting year for the history books. From poll-defying elections to a barrage of celebrity deaths, the Cubs winning the World Series, and the groundbreaking discovery of an Ebola vaccine, last year was full of ups and downs. In the workplace, the culture often reflects that of the world around us—and right now the volatility feels omnipresent.

2017 has been marked by millions of employees trying to navigate a general sense of unease and opportunity. And leaders and organizations don’t have to play victim to the current climate of uncertainty. Instead, seeking out encouragement from companies that offer examples of the positive impact an intentional culture can have on employees can inspire courses of action that foster alignment and solidarity.

When examining top company cultures, from startups to growing businesses, high-performing cultures align on several components that demonstrate a deep commitment to fostering productive, engaged, and happy employees while navigating inevitable rough spots. Here are three common initiatives necessary to create and sustain a supportive work environment:

1. Manage emotional contagion. Most of us have been trained to leave our feelings at the door before walking into the office. This doesn’t actually work very well. In fact, a growing body of research shows that emotional contagion is a real phenomenon, indeed. While employees may try to leave their feelings at home, it’s exceedingly difficult when these emotions are passed from person to person, much like that office stomach bug. So what do you do? The first crucial step is to understand that emotions cannot be checked at the door. Employees and leaders alike need to be aware of how their emotions and habits can be contagious. And, from my experience, it should be OK to talk about these things openly at work—at the discretion of the employee, of course. Offering this type of empathy and support can go a long way. Encouraging supportive friendships in the workplace correlates highly with engagement levels.

Next, organizations should prioritize formalized support structures and put clear policies in place. Based on data from the 2015 Top Company Cultures competition, one of the greatest predictors of employees not feeling overly stressed in their work environment was attributed to the presence of wellness policies and programs. Many companies use Employee Assistance Programs to help fill internal gaps, particularly for more extreme cases. Simple policies such as flexible work arrangements prove incredibly helpful and actually increase productivity. Finally, mindfulness programs are growing in popularity. Aetna offers a wonderful example of incorporating mindfulness into a company culture.

Managing the ripple effect of people feeding off of one another’s emotions requires the right tactics. Approaching emotional contagion with a practice of acceptance, support, and tangible channels can help your company avoid the death spiral and instead use collective emotions as a flywheel for positivity.

2. Give employees a voice. Company culture is how and why things get done in an organization. Perception plays a significant role in the why component. And employees’ perception of a company is that company’s cultural reality. For example, if a team perceives the company as feeling stale, the company culture is one of staleness. It is vitally important to identify and understand employees’ perception of your company in order to make appropriate adjustments. Surveys are a common and effective way to gauge perception, but before you issue one, think about which statements to use. Remember, you will have to act on the feedback you receive. The best organizations ask about tough topics, such as if employees feel leadership cares about them or if employees have confidence in their senior leadership team. These types of questions can uncover misalignments between employee groups and leadership. In addition to surveys, honest one-on-one conversations, focus groups, and Q&A sessions with leadership can provide a great view into employees’ perception of a workplace environment and dive deeper into the why behind a culture. It is also important to keep a pulse on how employee perception shifts over time by making feedback channels part of regular protocol. This allows leadership to adapt accordingly to pursue improvement. Fostering company cultures isn’t just about giving employees an opportunity to provide feedback, it is about creating an ongoing dialogue that will lead to a higher-performing organization.

3. Engage with purpose. “Purpose” (i.e., what inspires employees to do their job) often is tagged as a Millennial challenge, but recent findings show how workers across generations are motivated by making an impact. Therefore, an approach that engages employees with a clear organizational purpose can stimulate both mental and emotional participation across the company. While this can be particularly challenging for senior leaders—who often are more attuned to metrics-driven approaches to culture change—now more than ever, companies need to appeal to the more rational yet emotional aspect of work.

Consider three actions you can take to engage through purpose in your workplace. First, involve senior leaders in sharing stories about the impact of your organization. For example, instead of just focusing on the latest revenue results, emphasize the social and/or environmental impact of your organization. To demonstrate that these are an organizational priority, set goals that pertain to these impacts, and celebrate achieving them.

Second, provide a platform for employees to share their stories, as well. Leverage communication channels such as the company intranet, town hall meetings, and manager on-on-ones for employees to talk about purpose and how their roles make a difference in the company, for customers, and in society. Adam Grant and Wayne Baker both provide research and support for this approach.

Finally, reward and recognize employees for living into your organization’s purpose. By showing appreciation for and championing extra efforts to make an impact, you’ll reinforce to employees that their work matters to the company. This will have an exponential impact on employee sentiment.

The Bottom Line Is the Bottom Line

Happy employees feel engaged, supported, and purposeful, and they are effective and efficient at doing their jobs. Just look at the data: Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” have outperformed the market nearly three to one over a 17-year period. Conversely, unhappy employees can cost businesses both precious time and money. Gallup estimates that a lack of engagement costs American companies up to $550 billion per year, while research from Stanford finds that workplace stress, a direct outcome of weak culture, results in up to $190 billion per year in health-care costs.

In the year ahead, leadership teams will face a cultural obstacle course as humans are naturally wired to resist change. Putting special focus on culture will help ensure the bottom line against tumult. Deliberately turning company culture into a haven against stress—instead of an agitator—will pay dividends because when you extrapolate the discomfort sparked by recent current events to an enterprise of 10,000 team members, the benefits—and challenges—become formidable.

In today’s climate, the choice seems obvious.

David Shanklin leads culture strategy at CultureIQ ​(, where he helps​ clients figure out how to make their businesses better by combining the power of data and people. He’s passionate about helping others achieve their full potential through self-discovery and coaching. If Shanklin is not contemplating company culture, you’ll find him swimming, biking, or running on NY’s upper West Side.

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