This week, human resources expert Ben Bradley offers a simple way to look at good workplace culture and suggests tips you can follow to create it in your organisation.
I have an absolute obsession with Eggs Benedict. When I go out for breakfast, if I see it on the menu, I have to order it. Lucky for me, these days there are very few cafes or restaurants that don’t offer it. When I find a café that does it well, I will return again and again. When it’s done badly, I might hang around long enough to finish my coffee, never to return.
At it’s core, Eggs Benedict is a simple dish: some form of bread or muffin, poached eggs, ham or salmon and, of course, hollandaise sauce. Done right, the egg yokes spill open under the light touch of the knife onto crispy toasted bread generously covered with a smooth golden sauce. Done badly, you get a rock hard egg yoke that requires a steak knife and a lumpy substance claiming status as hollandaise in name only, all to be mopped up with soggy bread. Good Eggs Benedict takes skill and timing to get it right. Each ingredient must be brought together at the right time in order to be delivered to the table fresh and tasty. No chef would set out to cook a terrible, inedible breakfast, but I have left many such plates uneaten.
So why have I taken this time to drone on about Eggs Benedict? Quite simply, because I think it serves as a perfect metaphor for how we create and foster a healthy workplace culture. In fact, as I see it, both Eggs Benedict and workplace culture are achieved in a similar way.
To make a workplace culture a good one might seem easy, but it is actually a complicated and delicate process. Leadership must be aware of the steps involved, work at getting the ingredients right, consider timing, and deliver them in the proper way. A misstep along the way can have disastrous results.
Like Eggs Benedict in it’s simplest form, workplace culture has only a few basic elements:
- Systems — These are formal processes that help achieve the business’s purpose
- Symbols — The visuals of the workplace, physical layouts, signs, etc.
- Leadership behaviours — Leaders that set the standards of behaviour in their team. Good leaders do not force compliance or manipulate, rather they gain trust and deliver results by engaging their teams.
These three elements combine to create a culture that at its most basic is “the way we do things around here”. Done right, culture can make a workplace great: managers lead while team members are engaged. They function together to enable the success of the organisation’s overarching vision and strategy. Like the restaurant that produces great Eggs Benedict, it’s a place you want to come back to.
On the other hand, a negative culture, like bad Eggs Benedict, will make you want to drink your coffee and leave as quickly as possible, never to return. Managers in these workplaces are likely not good leaders. Their employees aren’t engaged and no matter how good the strategy, success remains unrealised.
Why then, when the elements of both workplace culture and Eggs Benedict are so simple, do some nail it and others fail miserably? No one sets out to fail, of course. The question is: What creates a great culture? Followed by: How do we create one?
To explain this, let’s look at how a good chef creates my dish of choice:
- Planning — They know what the dish will look like when it is finished and the order things need to be done in. They communicate with the other chefs in the kitchen as well as the wait staff — all working together to achieve the output. They don’t just have some wishy-washy words on their menu that says: “We aspire to be the Eggs Benedict provider of choice“.
- Training — No cook becomes a qualified chef by simply being given the title. Rather, it must be earned. Chefs undergo extensive training to successfully apply their craft. This involves formal lessons, mentoring, and supervision by masters.
- Practice, Practice, Practice — The chef practices every time they work, and they receive constant, instantaneous feedback on their performance. If a meal comes back half eaten or a customer refuses to pay, they learn and adjust. Great chefs are always seeking feedback, looking to improve, sourcing fresher produce, and so forth. They see becoming a great chef as a journey rather than an end point.
I’m sure by now you see where my ‘over-cooked’ analogy is going, but workplace culture requires the same elements as a good Eggs Benedict:
- Planning — It needs to be specific, well-communicated, and worked toward in well-outlined steps. Wishy-washy statements such as “We aim to be an employer of choice” or “We use a four pillars approach to creating engagement” are worthless without a specific plan on how the desired culture will be achieved.
- Training — No manager becomes a leader just by being given a title. It requires training and mentoring. This should include formal development and practical coaching in the actual work environment.
- Practice, Practice, Practice — Leadership does not come naturally to most. Like anything that we want to become good at, it requires practice and, contrary to the popular saying, practice does not make perfect. Instead, practice makes permanent, and good practice is required to become a good leader. As we progress in our careers and become more senior, we are less likely to get honest feedback from those around us. But feedback is vital to improving on anything, so we must look for other feedback mechanisms. This can include 360 reviews or encouraging other’s to give honest opinions. Becoming a great manager is a journey rather than an end point.
Like great Eggs Benedict, a positive workplace culture doesn’t just happen. It requires good leaders to align their people, driving the performance of the organisation by demonstrating the required behaviours. This practice must be purposeful and deliberate. It requires constant feedback and a willingness by leaders to take it on board and improve as a result. This creates great leaders, and great leaders create great workplaces.