Is That an Elephant in the Room?

By Jennifer Sumiec, CEAP

Have you ever been in a workplace where certain behaviors are tolerated because “that’s just the way things are done around here?” EA professionals often recognize when an organization’s dysfunctional “way we do things” contributes to an individual’s presenting issue.

Assessing workplace culture may empower you to have a greater impact on larger systemic issues. This is an important step in delivering a value-packed EAP targeted at an organization’s unique characteristics. Identifying the behavioral strengths and challenges of employees and leaders can help to target core issues that impede organizational success. 

Culture, the foundation of any workplace, is made up of individual behaviors. Culture evolves over time as people in an organization change. Culture sets expectations for which behaviors are reinforced or extinguished. Employee attitudes and beliefs are shaped by experiences. For culture to change, new, more powerful experiences need to occur to shift the attitudes and beliefs and drive new behaviors. 

Consider the Context
Many workplace programs and benefits, including EAPs, are sometimes too focused on the individual and fail to consider the broader cultural context within which those individuals exist. Focusing on individual issues like health behaviors and individual performance without considering the larger cultural forces that drive problem behaviors limits an organization’s ability to achieve desired outcomes. 

Behavior is Central to Culture
Imagine you are called to a consultation with a team of leaders. A new manager has expressed concern about the level of toxicity in her workplace. She has observed a high degree of discontent among employees and contractors. As soon as someone leaves the room, the group starts talking negatively about that person. Throughout the years a culture of negativity and criticism has developed and complaining is the norm.

During your consultation, you discover the last two generations of leaders not only tolerated this behavior but practiced it, even serving as role models. The rules of engagement were clear — in order to fit in, you complain, gossip, and backstab.

Or, you might find the opposite — a workplace where people are exceedingly friendly and helpful. In these workplaces, you consistently observe leaders and employees at all levels dropping everything to escort a lost visitor to their destination or listen to someone who is having a difficult day.

These individuals make solid eye contact, use open body language, and demonstrate active listening and empathy. They are authentic and value their ability to help others. They have high levels of morale and productivity, minimal politics and confusion, and their employees love coming to work and what they do. 

In each of these workplaces, the behavior sets the mood. When using a cultural perspective to assess an organization, ask questions like: “What is it about our work culture that makes this employee think he can behave this way?” and “What role have I and others played in supporting and reinforcing these behaviors?”

Micro-Cultures are Key
It is often said that people don’t quit their companies, they quit their bosses. Generous perks and benefits may help attract talent and corporate initiatives certainly sound good on paper. However, these approaches typically do little to create or transform culture.

The real work of culture occurs at a smaller level. Micro-cultures form across organizations based on norms established by individuals and leaders within a department or team. While some aspects of culture may be found throughout an organization, often there are pockets of discontent or high engagement and productivity. 

It is important to assess which managers are driving positive micro-cultures, and how they are doing this. Managers who concentrate on alignment, positivity, and progress develop happier workplace cultures. They:

** Ensure that the job and the individual are in alignment;
** Help employees find meaning in the organization’s values;
** Show workers how the company fits into the bigger picture; and
** Cultivate trust and flexibility into policies. 

Managers like these exude a positive environment by broadcasting personal and team successes, offering fast and positive feedback, maintaining open multi-directional communication lines, offering resources and emotional support, and demonstrating gratitude. They build progress by setting clear, measurable and achievable goals, offer training to master skills, and respecting individualism.

What Tools can you Use to Assess Workplace Culture? 

* Listening and observing. The most powerful tool an EA professional has for assessing workplace culture is your ability to listen and observe. What beliefs and attitudes do employees and leaders convey and how do their behaviors align? Do their behaviors support their values? Ask powerful questions such as: “What’s possible here?” “What would it take to create change?” and “What opportunities do you see?”

 Reflecting on what you hear and observe is a powerful intervention. This information helps stakeholders achieve the crucial first step of gaining insight. 

* Emotional intelligence assessment and coaching. It has been estimated that 60% of a leader’s effectiveness is based on her or his degree of emotional intelligence. The leader’s technical and business skills are not as important. What opportunities are available for leaders, especially front-line supervisors and mid-level managers, to gain emotional intelligence? The skills involved with identifying and regulating one’s own emotions help a leader succeed in many aspects of the job.

1) Help leaders identify their “hot buttons.” 2) Teach them strategies to control emotional reactions and use rational thinking to avoid getting emotionally “hijacked.” 3) Teach them to demonstrate behavioral flexibility when working with the emotional reactions and “hot buttons” of others. 

* Interviews and focus groups. When a workgroup struggles and stakeholders are having difficulty pinpointing the core problems, offer to conduct individual interviews with all or some members of the group.

1) Interview individuals who are reliable reporters, who can see all sides of an issue, and are willing to give candid feedback. 2) Another option is to facilitate focus groups to elicit strategies for moving the group toward their goals. 3) Keep the group focused on identifying the desired behaviors and experiences rather than negative attitudes and perceptions. 

* Management consultation. Be strategic in your consultation with organizational leaders. Gain an understanding of who has influence within the organizational hierarchy and how you can leverage both formal and informal leaders to model the behaviors desired in the organization. 

* Reviewing assessment data. Ask to review prior assessment data that organizations have collected from cultural, engagement or health assessments. Data can be useful in designing EAP interventions and custom programs. When possible, gear organizations toward using tools that are scientifically validated, behaviorally-focused, and produce data that drives action.

In addition to addressing individual concerns, EA professionals are uniquely positioned to help organizations explore systemic issues. Courageously explore the workplace culture of your corporate clients. Look at the system, point out the elephants, and find your place of influence in transforming workplaces into thriving, positive places with highly engaged and deeply satisfied workers.

Jennifer Sumiec, MA, CEAP, is a Corporate Trainer, Management Consultant, and Manager of Culture 1st Services at the Waukesha, WI-based Empathia, Inc. Jen has more than 15 years’ experience providing counseling, consultation, critical incident support, training, and account management to organizations that want to achieve and sustain a healthy and productive workplace. She has presented at national and international conferences and has received awards for her involvement in a joint management-labor-EAP program and a journal publication in personality assessment.