By Diane M. Calabrese / Published July 2014
Like truth and beauty, a positive work environment is a joy to behold. There is harmony in all directions. A positive work environment may just happen. Chance could bring together a group of coworkers that have absolutely no difficulty moving as a team toward the same goal.
More often, though, it takes some effort to keep discord from entering the workplace. It is not much different from the diligence required to keep weeds from invading a lovely garden, or the self-awareness needed to prevent inaccuracies from clouding veracity.
Achieving harmony may be difficult, especially in times of weak economic activity. The natural departure of employees who would like to be in a different setting is disrupted by the dearth of alternative workplaces.
Of course, each employee—even the one looking for a new position—has a role to play in ensuring that the day-to-day interaction at work is positive. Conflict in the workplace does more than harm productivity for the day. It also can repel customers forever. A customer who overhears an argument between coworkers may just say, “never again,” and go elsewhere for the next purchase.
What can a business owner do to encourage harmony, realizing that everyone in the workplace deals frequently with the smaller difficulties of life such as a spouse away on travel, or a sick child who was up most of the night? Establish expectations. And then, follow through in a consistent manner.
Candor about expectations for an employee begins during the job interview. An owner should clearly state the level of commitment required by the employee. If there can be no reduced hours for anything other than an emergency—not soccer games, not music recitals—say that explicitly. Always aim to be certain a prospective employee understands the nature of the job. Clarity makes for a good start.
“Maintaining a positive work environment starts with the owner of the business,” says Doug Rucker, Owner of Clean & Green Solutions in Porter, TX, and the Vice President of the UAMCC. “As the owner of the business, I look to hire only positive and motivated people. When you eliminate negativity and negative thoughts, it’s easier to establish and maintain a positive work environment.”
There’s much to be gained from taking the time to talk at some length with job applicants. Applicants with a positive outlook on work will reveal it if questioned about hypothetical situations. What would the applicant do if a part that was supposed to arrive by 10:00 a.m. did not, but the customer calling to pick it up did—and was a bit annoyed?
The prospective employee who sees the challenge in smoothing out the misaligned part and customer situation has a can-do attitude. It’s an indicator of a positive outlook—a perspective that when multiplied invigorates a business.
“A positive work environment increases enthusiasm for the task or job at hand,” says Rucker. “Enthusiasm enhances effectiveness. If a person is prone to negative thoughts or a give-up-early attitude, then that can sometimes influence others into the same mentality, causing the workplace to suffer.”
If negativity does arise for any reason, do not delay in addressing it. “Communication and catching it early are essential,” says Rucker. “Most of the time when things start getting negative, it is usually due to not communicating well, causing misunderstandings. When you first start to sense this, start asking questions and begin solving problems quickly. The quicker you get everyone back on the same page, the quicker you can turn it around.”
As Rucker notes, it’s not just about setting expectations, but also about resetting them when necessary. Just as a string quartet must tune instruments to keep the agreeable sounds coming, so must a workplace team adjust when necessary to avoid disharmony.
“The best thing that we have done to create a positive work environment is to set goals and expectations for our employees,” says Chris Apple, Owner of Arkansas Pro Wash in Sheridan, AR. “This has really created the sense of a team. Everyone knows their role and is accountable for it.”
To be sure, the absence of role confusion and the accountability that goes along with clearly delineated responsibilities prevent the eruption of cases of ‘it’s-not-my-job.’ One of the best things a business owner can do when interviewing an applicant is to emphasize that employees may have a primary responsibility, but that their secondary responsibility is to pitch in and assist with other tasks when necessary if they are qualified to do so.
Well-defined expectations make it much easier for employees to pull together. Clarity about roles and accountability promotes cohesiveness. Apple explains that his crews work together in an extremely methodical way “without missing a beat.”
The responsibility for setting the tempo begins with the owner. Being prescriptive about workplace attitude rarely accomplishes much. “There is only so far you can get by walking in the shop and saying, ‘Everyone smile,’” explains Apple. “You’ve got to have a simple plan.”
When employees understand their roles and how their activities fit into the goal of the business, they can more easily self-assess and be accountable. It’s a simple approach that brings dividends to the business—on the bottom line.
At smaller companies, an owner usually has the opportunity to interact with employees each day. In some cases, the owner works alongside employees. That makes modeling respect for others and displaying a positive attitude easier.
When a company grows and a layer (or more) of management separates the owner from many employees, different tactics are necessary. The owner, however, is still the model.
“It starts with top management setting the proper environment,” says Robert M. Hinderliter, who is the PWNA Environmental Advocate and the President of Rahsco Manufacturing Co., Inc. located in Fort Worth, TX. “Be positive. Be fair. Acknowledge good performance.”
Top management should commend people on the spot for a job well done and recognize exceptional performance, says Hinderliter. And everyone should be treated according to the golden rule, including customers.
Even in the most upbeat, industrious setting, things happen. Moreover, things sometimes go awry because of a decision made by top management. “Top management needs to take credit for poor decisions they are responsible for,” says Hinderliter.
It’s the ongoing responsibility of top management to make certain that directives are understood and that the decisions driving the directives have been made with input from the staff that will implement them. “Top management needs to sell the staff, rather than order the staff to follow decisions blindly,” says Hinderliter.
“If top management does a good job of selling the staff, their program will be followed in their absence,” says Hinderliter. “It’s like their shadow never leaves the office.”
Bad decisions and poor implementation of good decisions cause problems for a business in many ways. Perhaps the most significant, though, is the way they impact morale. “A call for blind obedience does not work,” says Hinderliter. Such a call is akin to a request for obsequiousness, which weakens a business because the flow of information—good, solid feedback—stops.
“Your best staff has choices,” says Hinderliter. “Your most productive and best employees leave first. Poor morale,” he explains, “serves as a filter that captures and holds only the weakest employees.”
A small company does not have enough endurance to survive incompetent management, says Hinderliter. A larger company may survive for a rocky time. But in a larger company, if an owner sees the business regressing, there is a need for immediate action, which can be bringing in a competent manager—or even, selling the business.
A positive work environment is a good thing in its own right. But it feeds into many benefits for the business owner beyond good productivity.
Employees that perceive their workplace to be pleasant are less likely to be absent from work. Their sense of well being at work reduces overall stress, and they are less likely to suffer from stress-exacerbated illnesses.
With a good feeling about what they are doing, employees are more likely to follow all safety procedures all the time. Fewer health and safety incidents translate into lower workers’ compensation premiums.
If employees identify their workplace as a good one, they are less likely to leave. Employee retention and employee longevity both increase.
When employee retention increases, hiring costs decrease. Lower turnover among employees means that employees can get to know one another better, garnering an appreciation of the expertise of coworkers.
Understanding itself promotes awareness of the fundamentals of creating a positive workplace environment in a sometimes tumultuous world. Good workers know that each person is unique. They realize each person has talent, but not the same talent. They appreciate that all people have trials, but not the same trials. And they move beyond the differences to get the job done as a team. Notions of who has the harder job, the more difficult life, etc. are quickly transcended. Accountability and respect are equal partners in a positive work environment.