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Saperia: Nine ways to contribute to a positive, healthy workplace culture

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I recently transitioned from a job that had me working remotely and often alone to a position in a larger organization where I work onsite with a team. It’s a terrific place with high-calibre personnel, and I feel very fortunate. The move has inspired me to ask friends and acquaintances about their own job satisfaction. Here are some of my initial findings of qualities and behaviours of professionals that contribute to a positive and healthy workplace culture:

1. Strike the right balance between old and new. On the one hand, you must be open to new ideas and resist the mentality of “We have to do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.” On the other hand, when you’re new, it is critical to find out why things are the way they are before you try to change them – there may in fact be a good reason for the status quo.

2. Everyone likes a happy warrior. A happy warrior is undaunted by the challenges that arise, seeks to learn from every situation, values reason as well as emotion, and responds with grace.

3. It’s better to collaborate than compete. Many organizations are moving away from measuring the success of individuals and instead focusing on the success of a team or the company as a whole. They recognize that more is achieved together than individually. Healthy teams also share credit for accomplishments.

4. Be respectful, straightforward, and direct in your interactions with others. If you feel upset about a matter, speak to the individual responsible. Avoid triangulation, which refers to talking with person A about person B when you should be talking honestly, positively, and constructively to person B directly. Triangulation fosters – and itself is a symptom of – mistrust.

5. Try to smile even if you’re not having a great day. Before my mother got married, my grandmother counselled her that a wife should put on lipstick and a smile when her husband comes home at the end of the day. The premise – that the wife is waiting at home for her breadwinner husband to return from work – is admittedly patriarchal, but a smile and positive attitude never go out of fashion, at the office or home.

6. Remember that everything is “figureoutable.” While self-help books are not my typical reading material, I picked up Marie Forleo’s Everything is Figureoutable on my sister’s recommendation. The book’s message is that everything we do in life should be viewed as an active choice, and very few things are as scary as they seem. Problems, whether personal or professional, are to be broken down and tackled. Forleo shares an anecdote about finding her mother successfully performing intricate surgery on a broken radio, without any training but plenty of determination. It inspired me to aggressively take on a task I had been dreading.

7. Ask questions! Managers should foster an environment in which everyone feels comfortable asking questions, from the most seasoned to the most junior employee. A senior person asking questions should not be perceived as lacking experience or being unworthy of holding a position of authority. On the contrary, questions generate discussion, new ideas, and fresh perspectives. To borrow a phrase from the mindfulness movement, “foster a beginner’s mind.”

8. Don’t fear disagreement. On the contrary, sound decisions are made by encouraging differences of opinion and talking through pros and cons. Alfred P. Sloan Jr., who stewarded General Motors from 1923 to 1956, surprised his top managers when a particular GM internal motion had unanimous support: “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

9. Be generous in your interpretations of other people’s behaviour. Try to see things from their point of view. Most people don’t have malicious motives – they may feel misunderstood or have misinterpreted the situation. Explore what might be going on and assume the best until proven otherwise.

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