An ongoing survey of tech workers by Comparably reveals that 38 percent of respondents leave their jobs because they feel underpaid or underappreciated. Though pay inequality has been under intense scrutiny during the last decade, the underlying concern is how valued (or undervalued) people feel in their workplace, based on who they are or their experiences.
That being said, feeling underappreciated can take on many forms. How many times have you heard employees say they've had these experiences in the workplace?
Great ideas being shot down without any kind of consideration
Being passed up for a promotion by a less qualified candidate
A lack of praise or recognition
Communication from superiors only when there is a problem
Managers always talking and never listening
Leadership showing little interest in your future within the organization
Our list could be 100 items long if we so desired. Many of these scenarios aren’t random occurrences, but rather, ingrained in toxic workplace cultures. Frustrated employees disengage from their jobs, resign themselves that nothing will improve, and, when they finally become too fed up, leave for greener pastures.
Ultimately, when the workplace culture is failing, leadership bears the responsibility for intervening and taking the necessary steps to remedy the underlying problems. However, sometimes seeing the signs is difficult when you are deep inside the belly of the beast. Here are eight questions to ask that can start you and your organization on a journey to transform the workplace experience.
1. Do you ask the team for input and ideas?
Many efficient managers who don’t take the “my way or the highway” attitude still work with major blinders and don’t proactively seek honest input from their teams. These well-intentioned managers don’t necessarily have a lack of trust in employees, but they don’t trust anyone but themselves to get the job done, which can lead to reinforcing a culture of overwork and micromanaging. Transforming workplace culture requires involving the entire culture, and that may require you letting go a little and involving your team in strategy, innovation, and decisions.
2. Do you give employees opportunities to grow?
Managers and the employees they oversee might share more in common than traditional hierarchy would have them believe; both have career and personal goals and aspirations and want to feel purpose and passion at work. A workplace that doesn’t offer a way to pursue improvement, advancement, development, and meaning directly affects the employee experience. In other words, when anyone in the organization feels they’re at a dead end or can’t readily talk to someone about their aspirations, they’re more likely to feel like there isn’t any kind of investment in their value or worth. As a leader, you have a choice: Do you provide those growth opportunities through mentorship, engagement, and career conversations, or instead fall prey to apathy or inaction and hold employees back?
3. Does your organization encourage open communication?
Open communication isn’t just about empowering employees to voice their opinions and ideas; it also involves offering the utmost respect and consideration to those ideas. Too often, implicit and explicit biases derail leaders’ perception of what is being communicated—they hear but don’t really listen. Joan Kuhl, debut author of Dig Your Heels In: Navigate Corporate BS and Build the Company You Deserve, outlines infuriating examples of corporate workplaces that don’t hold space for having honest conversations about how different kinds of people experience the same job, particularly focusing on young women at the beginning of their careers. If your organization encourages communication, that’s great; now, determine how open and accepting that communication is and how it can be improved. Are you willing to really listen, even if it means receiving a rude awakening about your workplace? Why or why not?
4. Are you committed to diversity and inclusion (and do you know the difference between the two)?
Far too many organizations say they believe in diversity and inclusion, yet don’t follow through with their actions and policies. For example, some consider diversity in the hiring process, but then don’t take the critical steps to embrace inclusive attitudes once a diversity of experiences and people are working in teams where conflict and microaggressions may arise. Knowing the difference between the two concepts is a good start to improving workplace culture: Diversity relates to the experiences individuals bring to the job; inclusion deals with how those experiences are valued, nurtured, and protected. This spring’s Diversity Beyond Lip Service: A Coaching Guide for Challenging Bias by La’Wana Harris is an insightful new resource about how organizations can rethink their attitude toward achieving a holistic diversity practice and coaching leaders into developing an inclusive workplace culture.
5. Are you paying enough attention to how employees are interacting with each other?
Some competition in the workplace can be healthy, but it can also devolve into being exclusionary, toxic, territorial, and even disengaging. Not everyone responds the same way to the stress of competition, and some would rather work more collaboratively (though the two aren’t mutually exclusive). Moreover, when more favor is given by managers to a select few, backstabbing may ensue by those who are conditioned to feel they must do whatever it takes to get ahead. This toxic environment often festers without managers even realizing it is happening—or, unfortunately, with their tacit approval. Authors and feminist scholars Joy L. Wiggins and Kami J. Anderson explore this dynamic in their book, From Sabotage to Support: A New Vision for Feminist Solidarity in the Workplace, from the vantage of women working with one another and moving toward a more robust definition of solidarity in the workplace. Team and individual dynamics reveal an immense amount of information about how each individual experiences the workplace, and this information can serve as a launching pad for opening up conversations around team, solidarity, and coalition building best practices.
6. Do you encourage people to take risks and not be afraid to fail?
Innovation and boundary-pushing success involves a degree of courage and confidence. Employees who are afraid of failing and of how their failure will be perceived or punished never take chances—the personal career risk feels too great. If a manager expects team members to never rock the boat, even if and especially when it makes managers and leadership uncomfortable, they never will—and results, as well as the employee, will plateau. Supporting people in their initiatives and being encouraging if those initiatives fall short sets up teams to potentially go where no other team has gone before. You must be willing to wrestle with your own discomfort if you are going to try new and bold initiatives.
7. Is there too much micromanagement?
We mentioned trust earlier—some managers struggle to rely on even their best employees. This lack of confidence often results in micromanagement that decreases productivity and engagement, stifles creativity, strains communication, and further erodes trust. Moreover, micromanagement breeds more micromanagement because pressured employees feel like they must pressure other employees in unproductive ways. No one likes a workplace culture in which someone is constantly breathing down your neck. Effective communication that includes understanding and serving your employees, acknowledging the shift in power, and bringing out the best in them from a place of trust and respect, instead of the other way around, mitigates some of the de-motivation behind micromanagement. And don’t just take it from us—servant leadership is just one leadership style that can support a thriving and trusting workplace culture.
8. If you conduct exit interviews, what are departing employees saying?
Turnover is inevitable in every organization, but when it seems that you’re bleeding top talent at an unsustainable rate, the workplace culture could be contributing to the exodus. Carefully examine what your departing employees are saying in exit interviews. Although you might get the occasional expletive-filled burned bridge, many people will simply be honest about what they liked and disliked about the job they are leaving. If the same negatives keep coming up, it is time to take a step back and evaluate how your organization isn’t serving your people.
All these questions underscore that leadership must be constantly responsive to the needs of current and future employees. Workplace culture drives employee experience, and poor employee experience negatively impacts the bottom line—a reality that organizations can’t afford to ignore.