Photo by Katya Austin on Unsplash

What does a healthy workplace culture even look like? The short answer is, “it depends”. I like to think of a workplace culture like a family. Every family is different, depending on the broader cultural environment they live in, the values that guide them, the makeup of their family members, and a bunch of other factors. A family of eight living in Wisconsin may feel they have a healthy culture despite it being completely different from the healthy culture of a family of four from Moscow. The same applies to organizations.

The culture at a billion-dollar Fortune 500 corporation may actually be just as healthy – or unhealthy – as the small tech startup operating out of the founder’s basement. But the real question is, “How do you know that it’s healthy or unhealthy?”

This is a humdinger of a powerful question to ask the leaders in your organization. If you ask them whether their workplace culture is healthy or not, most will immediately have an opinion. (If they don’t, well that’s a whole other issue.) However, ask them, “How do you know?”, and in my experiences the responses vary. You may get a long pause and that “deer in the headlights” look on their face as they try desperately to articulate something.

Maybe you’ll get a long list of results, KPIs, and other very official-sounding metrics they use to measure that health. Things like employee engagement scores, or profitability numbers, or employee recruitment and turnover statistics.

And sometimes they’ll just say, “You can just feel it, man. You can feel and see that people are happy and engaged.” Oh, ok. You can feel it. From inside your executive corner office, you can feel the healthy culture that exists in your international offices in Brazil and Japan. Got it, very helpful.

I’m here to tell you that even if the stats are through the roof and people are sitting at their desks with massive smiles on their faces, day in and day out, that doesn’t mean your culture is healthy. They are extremely important indicators of health, but only when viewed through a very specific lens.

The lens that metrics, results, and feelings should be viewed through, and in my opinion the single most important way to assess the health of your workplace culture, is the organization’s ability to adapt to change.

I’m not talking about adapting to a new travel policy or benefits package. I’m talking about big change. Maybe it’s a new disruptive technology in an established industry (think Netflix and Blockbuster) or a global economic upheaval. Maybe it’s the firing of a beloved CEO or a company-crushing lawsuit filed by a larger competitor. Maybe it’s sudden and unexpected hypergrowth (man, I love that buzzword) that’s led to a massive influx of new employees and customers and money. Whatever it is, how your company adapts to change is the real key to measuring health.

It’s easy for employees to smile every day when times are good, the company’s growing, and profits are rolling in. Similarly, the happy family that’s never lost a loved one or struggled to put food on the table for their kids would probably say they’ve got a pretty darn healthy family culture, thank you very much.

But what happens under stress or during hard times? Does the family pull together and figure out a way through? Do employees draw on a shared vision and values to find solutions to problems?

Do they continue to smile even when times are tough, knowing that their teammates, from the CEO in his corner office to their neighbour in the next cubicle, have their back? 

If you want to really know how healthy your culture is, examine what happened to the metrics and results after the last big change your organization went through. Sit down as a leadership team and really dig into the change itself and how people handled it. Did they behave as you would have hoped and in line with values and guiding principles? Or was it an atmosphere of panic with every person out for themselves?

KPIs and metrics and those good feelings are all well and good. Having a vision, values, mission statement, guiding principles, and whatever is important. But none of it matters if all those inspirational principles go out the window at the first sign of trouble. Vision and values don’t mean much if they’re not lived through the good times AND the bad.

Mike Gibbons

Mike is one of the Co-Founders at Culture Assassins, a Vancouver-based media company dedicated to preventing the destruction of healthy, high-performing organizational cultures, and to providing people with the tools necessary to build them.

Mike is a results-driven and people-oriented business leader with more than 20 years of experience in organizational and team development, marketing and product strategy, business growth strategy, and operations. He has led multiple teams and businesses, locally and globally, most recently as a senior executive for a $100M division of a Fortune 500 company.

Mike is guided by his deeply-held beliefs in connection, curiosity, humour, empathy, and honesty. In addition to his passion for workplace culture and growth, he is an avid skier, mountain biker, and sci-fi fan.

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