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Ep 6: Warning, leaders: You can’t control culture. But you can influence it.

As a leader, you have influence on the employee journey of each team member. But there are many things you can’t control. Knowing the difference and reacting proactively shapes culture positively.

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Meet Russel Lolacher, Host/Creator of Relationships at Work

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Russel Lolacher is an international speaker and advocate for meaningful work relationships. He is the creator and host of Relationships at Work - the leadership guide to creating a workplace we love. A podcast and YouTube show where he talks with global experts on how to create healthy organizations. He’s held successful leadership and communication roles for almost 30 years, retaining one team for almost 12 years. His work and expertise in building employee and customer trust has been recognized on international stages, in Forbes, by Microsoft, Hootsuite and as a 4x named Top Thought Leader by the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI)

About Relationships at Work

The Relationships at Work podcast is the emerging leader's guide to creating a workplace we love. Subscribe for relatable and honest conversations focusing on creating and fostering a healthy work environment that entices people to apply, stay and thrive.

From leadership to communication to feedback to DEI to onboarding to engagement... there are so many aspects to building great relationships at work. This is THE place to start your journey and create an amazing workplace.

Learn more at relationshipsatwork.ca and youtube.com/@relationshipsatwork

Episode Highlights

Your Culture Already Exists

Russel Lolacher: A lot of organizations don’t get that they already have a culture. Whether it’s good or bad, it already exists. Whether they exercise any influence over it or not, it is happening. I’ve talked to so many leaders who say, “Well, we need to focus on culture.” And I usually respond, “Do you know the one you already have? Because it might be very much going on without you.” Or we talk about this culture like it’s this huge, nebulous thing in an organization when really, there are 7,500 sub-cultures that are happening within an organization that get completely ignored because the people at the top just think of this “singularity culture” that doesn’t exist.

How Can Culture Drive Greater Profits?

Russel Lolacher: I understand the drive for [new] profits to keep an organization going, but how about saving money? How about saving money around onboarding, hiring, re-training, etc? That’s where a culture can be created that pushes belonging and human centricity. It’s about keeping employees. Employee retention. It’s not a magazine subscription where you care more about getting new subscribers than keeping the ones you have. Organization[s] needs to understand the human element in the organization they work in. 

3 levels of awareness leaders should have about their company culture:

Air (Outside environment awareness): As a leader, you want to look at culture first from the air, from the highest point. What are the influences on the culture that you have no control over? I did a presentation that went into every influence an organization’s employees might be having [on their lives] right now. We don’t become different people once we leave the workplace. We are completely influenced and conjoined by it. So, as a leader who is influencing (or not influencing) their culture, they first need to step back and ask what environment their employees already are in. 

Land (Situational awareness): What you can control and influence. This is situational awareness. This is understanding what you do and what makes an impact. For example, [an] open door policy. People don’t understand that it’s not about the door; it’s about the psychological safety people need to have to get into that room [and have that conversation].

Sea (Self-awareness): Looking inside yourself. Going deeper. That’s where the self-awareness is, the self-care. Too many leaders are wanting to fix problems and create that sense of belonging when they are broken themselves. Leaders need leaders. They need to feel supported and feel they belong. They are part of the culture and need to feel healthy themselves. 

Russel Lolacher: So I think to influence culture, you need to look at all three levels from a holistic standpoint.

Matt Vance: I think those 3 levels of awareness are huge. When I help a company culture have a transformation, it always starts with a baseline survey. It’s typically a more in-depth, longer form survey that goes through the key areas of company culture, from teamwork to psychological safety. Then there are open format comments set up to see what is going really well and what the main thing is that should be changed. As we sift through these comments and find the themes, we find that those comments match the trending top positive and negative experience drivers of the other parts of the survey.

Crista Vance: From our research, leaders have the most ability to affect culture. Having that self-awareness to be purposeful about how they’re treating others and what culture they are creating really impacts these workplaces and the culture that exists.

Russel Lolacher: And I would say an organization with a good culture will take that data and understand it. A great leader will do it. It’s great to do a survey, but better to actually take that data and understand it and act on it. That’s what makes a great leader and that’s a step that needs to be taken more often.

What is the “employee journey” and why does it matter?

Russel Lolacher: The employee journey is the path that an employee takes from beginning to end in every touchpoint in an organization. The beginning could be when they view your website to apply for a job. The end of that journey isn’t always when they exit the organization. Heading to another employer can still be included. They may still be engaged with their former employer. They could be a boomerang employee that leaves and comes back. 

The most successful organizations look at the employee journey holistically. What are the onboarding, hiring, and interview processes? I am a big fan of thrive interviews (rather than calling them stay interviews) and exit interviews. Thrive interviews are focused on checking in with employees to see how well they are doing in their current role. We need to look at the entire journey of the employee, rather than just singular checkboxes. We don’t want to forget about the employee simply because we finished their onboarding.

Making 1:1’s Impactful

Matt Vance: I’ve often seen that 1:1’s [between a manager and a team member] are one of the key drivers of engagement. It is the leader that has the most facetime with each employee. Having those ongoing conversations on a regular cadence is huge. I have found that monthly is a great frequency.

Russel Lolacher: I had half hour meetings with my team regularly that were completely dedicated to what they wanted to talk about. These were something they looked forward to. This was a conversation that allowed for a lot of freedom that wasn’t operational. It was much more thoughtful and personal. It showed me that there was enough psychological safety for them that they could be that honest.

Just because you have a check-in doesn’t mean you are doing a good thing. If there is no psychological safety or they don’t have respect for you as a leader, then that may be one of the worst parts of their experience in their employee journey. Make sure the one-on-one is more valuable to them.

Crista Vance: It is also important to focus on the quality of those meetings, not just the cadence. You can’t just suddenly be an awesome leader at that one-on-one. Leaders should showcase that they value the relationships all the time so that those meetings can be quality. 

Russel Lolacher: You don’t want to cookie cutter it either. Finding the sweet spot of not too few and not too many meetings is tricky, so if you talk to your employees and find what works best for them, you can find that sweet spot.

How does communication affect relationships in the workplace?

Russel Lolacher: It’s everything. I can’t tell you how many issues, good or bad in an organization are led back to good or bad communication.It’s either what’s said or not said, actions or inactions, words you use or don’t use, etc. 

Communication is so embedded into the DNA of an organization that [it] demonstrates what culture and leadership really is. If you are a leader and you only talk ‘up’ [the reporting chain] and you’re not communicating to the employees you manage, there is a huge problem. You’re breaking your culture because you’re prioritizing one relationship over the other.

Communication is learned

Russel Lolacher: A lot of managers and leaders think they are good at communicating because they have been speaking since they were 3. Leaders should assume they are bad at communicating, even if they actually are good at it, and regularly do what they can to improve it. Try sending your email to someone that can proofread it and check your tone. Having a safe relationship network around you that can call you out and help you better communicate can be a secret weapon that more leaders should embrace.

Matt Vance: Everything you do or don’t do is communicating something. Having consistency in frequency of communication is important. I try to communicate so clearly that it’s impossible to misunderstand in written communication, verbal and nonverbal communication. We have to be aware of what we’re doing, and sometimes that takes asking a trusted individual to tell it to us straight.

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Co-Founder & COO, Mobrium

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