What Makes a Great Working Environment?
by Wally Bock
We know a lot about what a great working environment is.
In a great working environment the mission is being accomplished and morale is high. It's the "user" side of the two key leadership objectives: accomplish the mission and care for your people.
Most people know exactly what I mean by a great working environment. They may not be able to list characteristics, or point to research, but they've usually experienced one. So have you.
Think about a time in your life when it was great to come to work. If you're lucky there are lots of them. If you're really lucky, now is one of those times.
What was it like then? I'll bet you were excited about the work you were doing, and you knew that it was appreciated. You almost certainly felt that you were being treated fairly and that you had some control over what you got to do.
There's been quite a bit of formal research into the factors that make up a great working environment. Here's a quick summary of what the research tells us make for a great working environment.
• Interesting and Meaningful Work
• Clear and Reasonable Expectations
• Frequent and Usable Feedback
• Fairness (Consequences = Performance)
• Consistency (Predictability)
• Maximum Control Possible Over Work Life
In my training classes, I often do an exercise where participants identify the times when they were in a great working environment and what that was like. The language is often a bit different from the formal research, but the same things come up over and over again.
Interesting and Meaningful Work
People want to do work that's interesting and meaningful. They want what they do to be enriching for them and important to others.
Different people define interesting in different ways. For some people, it means that they're learning a lot, having lots of personal growth. For others, the most important thing is that there are lots of different situations to deal with or lots of different problems to solve.
Sometimes "interesting" is not so much about the work itself as it is about the people you work with. This self-fulfillment comes from being part of a team, an elite group, or just a bunch of folks you like working with.
It's also important for the work to have value to others. The "others" can be the whole world, or just your customers or the people you work with.
Clear and Reasonable Expectations
People like to know what's expected of them. They like to know the rules of the game.
Expectations need to be clear. At the supervisory level, that may mean laying out detailed, step-by-step procedures. At the management level expectations may come out of discussions with several people. At the leadership level, slogans and other brief statements that people can use as a "test" of their plans or actions are usually the most effective.
Don't underestimate the values of frequency, simplicity, and memorability when you're communicating expectations. You have to communicate the important things over and over in memorable terms.
In fact, repeating things is one way of telling people what's important. Slogans are great for this. So are devices like pocket reminder cards with simple messages or messages in table form.
Use your regular forms of communication, like newsletters, emails, sales bulletins to reinforce your leadership message. Reinforce your written communications of expectations with oral communications. Reinforce your formal communications with informal ones.
Remember that you need to state expectations for the performance you want, but you also need to be clear about the consequences of performance that's beyond or not quite up to standard.
Frequent and Usable Feedback
People like to know how they're doing. Feedback is how they find out. To work, the feedback must be frequent (lots of small course corrections) and usable.
How frequent is frequent? The answer, which sounds something like a cop-out is: "As often as necessary?"
Some people want and need a lot of feedback. Other people prefer to be left alone most of the time to do their work. You have to know who needs what and in what situations.
The idea is to make lots of small course corrections on the way to the clear target you've established with your expectations. Lots of small adjustments are almost always easier and more effective then a few giant ones.
Feedback also has to be usable. Time your feedback so it reaches people when it is the most helpful. In most situations, that means you want feedback as close to the performance as possible. If you can set up a system so people can get their own feedback, so much the better.
Work on your communications skills so you deliver feedback in the most effective way possible. Learn about different ways that people process information, and match your communication to their preferred style. Learn about Social Styles and other ways that help you communicate with people in the ways they most like to be communicated with.
Fairness (Consequences = Performance)
People want to know that they (and others) are being fairly rewarded based on their performance. This is one of those words that requires definition. Otherwise, it becomes one of those words that everyone agrees with, but no two people have a common definition for.
For us, fairness means that the consequences of the performance are determined by the quantity and quality of the performance. One of the people in my class put it in almost Biblical terms: "The good shall be rewarded and the underachievers shall be punished in accordance with their results."
This ties back to reasonable expectations. It depends on regular and usable feedback.
Consistency means predictability. Subordinates want to know how their supervisor will react in a given situation. Consistency also relates to predictability in terms of performance.
Your people want to know how to predict your reaction in different situations. If they can't, they worry about whether or not to trust you.
According to some management studies, consistency (predictability) is the single most effective standard to establish with your own leadership behavior. It's actually another form of communication. It's a way of walking the talk.
Leadership by example means that you act out the values and principles that you say you and others stand for. To quote Howell Raines on Bear Bryant: "Coach Bryant had an idea about how a man ought to act and if you watched him, you could figure out what it was."
Leadership by example means that you consistently pay attention to the important things, consistently reward good performance, consistently see that rewards and punishments are meted out fairly.
Maximum Control Possible over Work Life
People want to have a say about things that affect their life. You can make that happen for them by giving them as much control as possible over issues that affect them at work.
Obviously that varies from person to person and situation to situation. Some people like to be left alone. Others want to see you frequently.
Some people are qualified to make lots of decisions about their work. Others need to develop their skills a bit before they can do the same.
Some people work hard and make an effort to do the job. Others slack off.
It's probably a good general rule to allow individuals as much control of the basic decisions about their work as they are capable of handling and willing to handle. In today's flatter organizations, this is easier to do from an organizational standpoint, but it's hard for many of us from a personal standpoint.
Part of your job as a boss is to create a great working environment for the people who work for you. It's not easy, but the result can be both high morale and high productivity.
Wally Bock is an author, speaker and consultant who helps businesses improve morale and productivity. His latest book is Performance Talk: The One-on-One Part of Leadership.
Wally Bock may be contacted at http://www.threestarleadership.com/ or firstname.lastname@example.org