How Do We Build A Workplace Culture?

Full Transcript Below

[ANNOUNCER]: Breaking down everyday workplace issues and diagnosing the hidden sickness not just the obvious symptom, our hosts James and Coby.

[COBY]: Did we lose a patient?

[JAMES]: No that’s just my lunch.

[COBY]: Hey thanks for joining us. I’m Coby, he’s James. Let’s get started with a question. How do we build a workplace culture?

[JAMES]: The simplest answer is with intention. It’s kind of a cheeky statement, but it’s important to focus on that word with intention. And we’re going to talk more about that because often times we think we build a workplace culture by crafting a mission statement. And emailing it making sure that everybody knows what our mission statement is and that somehow becomes our culture. Or that culture is merely what I say it is. It’s what I tell people, it’s what I tell my employees it is, or unfortunately some people still think that culture is not important or that it’s merely just about making people happy. It’s the touchy feely culture, we’re just… people need to be happy in the workplace. And that is really a short-sighted approach to building a workplace culture because your workplace culture is how you get the best work out of people. Just from a purely selfish standpoint as a business owner, or a leader, you want a strong workplace culture because that’s how you’re going to get the best workers, that’s how you’re going to get the best productivity, that’s going to how you’re going to get the best work out of each person. It’s going to help you achieve all of your organizational goals.

[COBY]: Yeah and I think that’s a very good, just kind of summary in general right there. Because you’re right, a lot… and we’re done! No, but a lot of the way that we, or the business community, for decades has kind of seen culture is it’s kind of been a bit elusive. Because again, it’s the idea of well, you know we make like, you know, the mission statement. We make the statement, we share our goals and our vision, and our values with people and then the actions that we kind of take are a bit sporadic, and a bit on.. and I guess unintentional or just disconnected, it creates a culture almost like by accident or as a result. You’re right, if they say our culture is X, Y, and Z, so everybody this is what it is, so follow in line, in lockstep. When the reality is the opposite. It’s not what you say it is, it’s what the employees feel it is every day.

[JAMES]: What’s interesting is we’ve talked about this in a previous podcast, but I had a chance to catch up on some reading over the Christmas break and had to put the book down and bite my tongue so that… because one of the common pieces of advice that is given to new business owners, or to new managers, to new leaders is this idea that if you want to… you need to establish your culture. You need to take your leadership team go on a retreat for three days decide what your mission statement is, decide on your company values come back and tell everybody what your values are and your values are your culture.

[COBY]: Right, and yeah, and that is short-sighted to say it nicely and kind of totally missing the point to be more realistic.

[JAMES]: I am trying to be nicer especially the podcast .It’s not gonna work I recognize this, I’m not actually going to change, but I recognize that I need to. We’re are on the right path

[COBY]: At least, you’re acknowledging you have a problem. But the other thing too is… like, but then there are some that truly do say, it’s not important. It’s irrelevant, who cares about our culture, we’re about productivity, we’re about getting the work done, we’re about the product, we’re about profits, and that is the kind of mentality of leaders, or owners, who just fundamentally do not get human beings, or society, or psychology, or anything that’s… Like to put bluntly that this is kind of a dumb thing to think. If you think that’s the case, I got a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you. But I think one of the fundamental pieces that you touched on is about making people happy. I think that the common misconception is that culture is about happiness, culture is about… is it just about morale, and it’s not. Like you said, a culture is about creating an environment where people are going to be productive, where they are going to provide you their best, and their most work. And that is the heart of it. That’s the truth, that’s the one thing that if people take away from this, let it be that. It is the fundamental component to anything that involves employees who you expect to get quality and productive work out of. Because like we often think of it… because those think of it just as happy, they kind of give it a warm and fuzzy type environment. It’s a Kumbaya, it’s a thing that, you know, that it’s a nice-to-have. And again, where they think it’s separate from their business outcomes and that is a fundamental mistake. If you’re a business owner, or leader, or manager that thinks culture is separate from your productivity, your performance, your efficiency then you are totally missing the point, and you’re doing yourself a great disservice.


[JAMES]: Yeah and talking about business outcomes, we are talking about your ability to increase market share, we are talking about your ability to effectively grow, your growth internal, we’re talking about your ability to effectively manage change, to become more innovative. We are talking about fundamental core components of how businesses grow and be competitive in the marketplace. And the culture has a direct impact on those business outcomes.


[COBY]: Yeah it’s not even like it’s a correlation. where there similar, it’s a causality. Your culture is causing your success, or your struggles, or your pain points, or your profit, or it is performance. It is a direct, thick line. And when people kind of undervalue it by thinking of it in terms of like the warm and fuzzies, or thinking it’s not important, The analogy I use an awful lot in our training is, I’ll have to compare the role the culture plays on a workplace as being as essential as electricity. Electricity is what powers our equipment, our buildings, our communications. And without electricity we’re just kind of sitting cold and alone in the dark. Where workplace culture is what powers the people. The people are what make our products, what provides our service. The people are what really powers the business. And when you dismiss workplace culture as just the warm and fuzzies, that’s like dismissing electricity as just about keeping your lunch cold in the fridge, right? You’re totally missing the point and you’re under valuing this essential utility to your success. So it’s really important for us to be asking this question; how do we build a workplace culture?

[JAMES]: And the best way to build a workplace culture, with intent, is to follow a systematic approach. So, the approach that we have developed, the approach that we use, is what we call our Workplace Culture Hierarchy. It is based on the psychology of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The psychology of human needs, and what people need to be successful. And how they need to move up, and how success at the higher stages is incredibly difficult or impossible to attain, long term, if you don’t have success at the bottom stages. So using that type of analogy, our Workplace Culture Hierarchy talks about the first foundational stage is Compliance. it is are you complying not only with legal compliance but are you complying with employee expectations. We actually talked about compliance in our last episode and we talked about the 7X3 Rule, right? We talked about how the factors of your workplace, the seven factors of your workplace, need to be addressed by considering the three expectations of your workforce. That’s competitive, sufficient, and equitable. And part of of it too is because we talk about Compliance, complying with legal compliance and legal standards is a part of it, but the majority of it is complying with those expectations. That’s what the workforce needs to be successful. So you need to provide them that if you want to ascend beyond that the base stage of Compliance.

[JAMES]: And the whole point of Compliance is to reduce or eliminate job dissatisfaction, right? So that… and we’ll talk a bit more about that, but that is the foundational piece that has to exist to have success at higher stages. From compliance we go to Psychological Safety, which is a term that really was coined by Dr. Amy Edmonston, who is a fantastic researcher, Harvard Professor, brilliant and has a ton of really great books on the topic of psychological safety. But the concept of psychological safety is how are you providing for an environment where people feel, not just physically safe, but safe to speak up, safe to fail, safe to explore. Do people feel like they have to put on airs in your organization? Do people feel like they have to hide who they are? Or can people admit to making a mistake without fear of retribution?

[COBY]: And we talked about psychological safety in one, I think is our our second podcast, and we kind of go into it into greater detail there. But, yeah and largely it’s about being vulnerable and allowing people to not be expected to be perfect. But be able to have the vulnerability to admit when you made a mistake, or put yourself out there and suggest an alternative or an improvement, and that is something that is fundamental. And I’m going to take over from you in naming the hierarchy here, and then from there that is… we need to move up to Inclusion. And inclusion is again, beyond just the term used in DEI, diversity and inclusion initiatives. Inclusion is about belonging, making sure that everybody feels they are connected, they are accepted, and that they belong. And you can’t… and you have to make sure that component is… it does play a role, inclusion does play a role in DEI, but it is not just about something that lives in the HR or the DEI department, it’s something that is a fundamental element to any workplace culture.

[JAMES]: Absolutely.

[COBY]: And then from there, we move up to Engagement. And Engagement is where a lot of people want to see the success. And we invest in engagement programs and software, we talked about engagement in a couple episodes ago, about where it goes wrong. And Engagement is about trying to improve motivation and productivity. And we try to do that by often investing in programs that will be successful with it. But again, it’s something that if it’s detached from the larger, again, structure of the foundation, then it’s limited in its success. And then the last component…

[JAMES] I just wanna jump in here on engagement. You can… this is where most people want to start. We hear the research, the studies, that say Employee Engagement has all of these amazing great benefits to our workplace. So all right let’s buy a piece of software, let’s start engaging with our employees, let’s do it. And you can have success at some of these higher stages of the hierarchy, but it’s not going to be sustainable, and it’s going to take far more time, energy, money, resources to see success if you haven’t built a firm foundation of Compliance, Psychological Safety, and Inclusion first.

[COBY]: Absolutely in the top of the hierarchy is what we call Strive. And Strive is where you’re trying to optimize outcomes or performance. So as an organization, you’re trying to do things, like you mentioned James, trying to innovate ,you’re trying to grow market share, you’re trying to grow internally, you’re trying to effectively manage change, or adapt to market conditions. And these are the kind of things we’re going to… we have programs like LEAN and continuous improvement, and those kind of things in certain, manufacturing sectors and stuff like that too. That are essential to producing higher profits, or higher output. But trying to do that in isolation without securing that foundation first is going to, like you said, you could do it, but you’re gonna have… but it’s gonna require significantly more time, effort, energy, and dollars to reach kind of a minutia of success. Whereas you could probably see an incredible ROI if you actually built the environment that will actually produce the productivity you need in people, to make those programs a success. And I think this is kind of the reality that we kind of keep coming to, is that we’re trying to address pain points in our workplaces. And so things like you know low productivity, or low motivation, or troubles with talent attraction, or retention.


[JAMES]: We can’t attract enough people, we can’t keep… You know one of the questions that we hear frequently; are how do you attract good talent? how do you keep high performers? How do you… like recruitment, retention seems to be a problem for everyone, everywhere, at every time, at every stage. Like it’s just… it permeates so many conversations. And the key to understand is you have to first address job dissatisfaction. Like you need an environment that people are actually attracted to. That people want to work in. If it’s the difference between somebody having the sweats on Sunday night, thinking about the fact that they have to go to your workplace Monday morning. Or actually being excited to go to work, or at least if not excited, at least not drenched in panic sweat, because they have to go to work.

[COBY]: Yeah with a modicum of enthusiasm about going to work. But you’re right and I mean, because when we try and go after pain points, again, things like burnout, and things like programs to support inclusion, and looking at trying to innovate, these are all the things that companies are asking for every day. And so it’s really funny when they ask us, or other people and say “you know I don’t care about inclusion is not important, how do I attract people? How do I reduce burnout? how do I increase my profit share, or my market share? How do I successfully manage change? but this is when we say you don’t get it if you think those are two separate things, right? So it’s really important that you need to know that you can’t just jump into your pain points, and think that you can address them in isolation. You can’t go after Employee Engagement, or improving morale, or improving productivity, just jumping in without understanding that you have to really address that foundation. And the key to doing that is to ask yourself the important question: ‘Before we do this, what needs to exist first before this becomes successful?’

[JAMES]: And that is the central question to the Hierarchy, and how it… so with Compliance, let’s start with Compliance. What needs to exist before Compliance to be successful? Well first you need to be meeting your basic legal minimums. If you’re not even meeting your basic legal minimums, do that first, for the love of God, please make sure that you’re at least protected from being sued for not following legislation. But so they’re… even there, you know, what needs to exist first is that you need to be meeting your basic legal minimums before you can look at moving any further up and addressing job dissatisfaction. But what needs to exist for… so as we go up the hierarchy and look at Psychological Safety, what needs to exist first for Psychological Safety to be effective? And it’s you need to be actively addressing job dissatisfaction, things like consistency is going to be a big, big influence on whether or not efforts around Psychological Safety are going to be effective. Because if your workplace is inconsistent, if your managers are inconsistent, if your expectations are inconsistent, people aren’t going to feel safe. Inconsistency creates a tremendous amount of anxiety and stress.

[COBY]: Yeah, absolutely. And another major component, I mean it’s all… all of the 7 factors and the 3 expectations in, you know, The 7X3 Rule that we talk about in Compliance, we talked about in the last episode, they’re all important. But specifically, you’re right, consistency is probably the most overt thing that if that’s not there; Psychological Safety is going to be doomed to fail. And another part of it too, especially when you’re looking at the expectations of equity and sufficiency, right? Because it’s a matter of making sure that things are fairly Equitable. That you’re providing people with sufficient… with sufficient means to do their job. Whether that’s wages, whether that’s mental health supports, whether that’s safety, whether that’s their job security, all those kinds of things are really needed for people to actually feel like they want to speak up. That they want to kind of be able to provide thoughts, and ideas, and advocate for themselves. But you’re right though, probably the biggest factor is consistency. Because if you’re hot one day, cold the next, then there is going to be no good… no matter how good your intentions are, no Psychological Safety will ever exist.

[JAMES]: Because people can’t trust you.

[COBY]: Yeah, clearly. And it’s as simple as that.

[JAMES]: Yeah so as we continue to move up the hierarchy though what… if going from Compliance to Psychological Safety, from Psychological Safety to Inclusion. What needs to exist first for Inclusion to be successful? And we’ve talked about inclusion in terms of creating an environment where people feel that they belong. That they belong for who they are, their authentic self. That they belong for their abilities. That they belong for their perspectives. So what needs to exist for that to be successful? I’m asking you Coby.

[COBY]: Oh, all right…

[JAMES]: I can ask the question and answer it myself, but I figured I’ll lob you a nice softball here.

[COBY]: Throw me a bone will you? Yeah but remember, they have to be able to feel like they can speak up and advocate for themselves. That they can actually, you know, engage in professional discourse, and be able to, kind of like, have their thoughts and ideas heard and share. Like they can’t be valued or accepted for their perspectives, if they’re never allowed to share their perspectives. Or they’re never allowed to show off their abilities. And one of the things that’s really tough, especially when we talk about inclusion and diversity, is that when we try and incorporate things like cultural awareness training or anti-bias training. Those are very, very important to improve diversity and look at kind of the harmony part of the workplace. But if psychological safety does not exist first, then you’re really putting a lot of time and effort into training that’s never going to amount to much. If people don’t feel they are safe to share their thoughts, feelings, ideas, if they’re not free to be wrong, if they’re not free to ask hard questions, if they’re not free to, again, put themselves out there and be vulnerable; then you are… all the money you invest in a lot of your diversity efforts initiatives is going to put good money after bad. Because you’re not creating the conditions that they need in order to actually have inclusion take off.

[JAMES]: And the ability to be wrong is so important, right? Are you… whether we’re talking about admitting a mistake, so I made a mistake or I messed up in my job duties, can I admit that, seek help, and not be fired? I mean if it’s gross negligence that’s something else entirely, right? But fundamentally, can people be wrong and fail in their job, but also when in terms of their perspective, the discourse in your workplace, the ability for people to engage in conversation. What is the consequence of being wrong? Of losing an argument? For having a opinion that is different from the majority opinion? Are people penalized and ridiculed for divergent thoughts? Or is there an opportunity to engage in discussion?

[COBY]: Like, yeah. Well and this is one thing we talk about, so we have two episodes of the podcast we talked about inclusion. One talks about inclusion and integration. And one talks about belonging. I think it’s… often we talk about this in terms of our training, and our Workplace Culture Intelligence (WCI) certification program. Part of it, when inclusion… you’re trying to do Inclusion without Psychological Safety, you’re kind of actually expecting integration and assimilation. Because if people are not free to speak up, share their thoughts, ideas, be vulnerable, ask questions, and they have to toe the line; that’s not inclusion. And you can’t expect to ever create Inclusion, if Psychological Safety doesn’t exist.

[JAMES]: And all it does… the idea of assimilation, it just it forces people to bury their own thoughts, opinions, ideas, identity. Push it down deep and put on a false face in the workplace. That is completely counter to creating an inclusive environment.

[COBY]: Absolutely, so then from there, from the Inclusion stage, when we move up to Engagement, and when we’re trying to incorporate, again, Engagement is about enthusiasm and motivation. You want the best work out of people, you want them to be productive, you want them to give their best work to you. And you try… and so we’re trying… We hear all these studies, and all these stats about how great it is. But then we try and incorporate it. But then the question is; what needs to exist first for Engagement to be successful? And if people do not feel like they belong, they are accepted, they are a part of the organization, they will never engage in it. Because it’s hard to engage when you are a stranger on the outside.

[JAMES]: Exactly. Why would somebody give you their best if they feel like you don’t value who they are. Engagement is about getting the best out of people, it’s about… and we’re talking about creating engaged employees, right? In order for somebody to fully engage in the work, to feel engaged in the work, if they don’t think that the company values them for their authentic self, or their perspective, for their ability, you will not get the benefits of engagement, right?

[COBY]: Absolutely and I mean so all the efforts we put in… the other thing too what a lot of Engagement efforts look like today is things like surveys, and things like feedback collection. But let’s, again, going back to psychological safety, if you have not created psychological safety in your workplace, and people do not feel safe to share their thoughts, opinions, ideas, can you trust the employee engagement surveys you are spending x amount of dollars on? Or are people just telling you what you want to hear? Getting it done as soon as possible or trying to give you the most benign answers to not Rock the Boat?

[JAMES]: Yep, you can spend a ton of money implementing survey and engagement surveys throughout your organization and get garbage results. That basically say “yeah everything is fine, I guess”.

[COBY]: Yeah, so every business decision you make based on the data that you collect, is not based on anything.

[JAMES]: Your data is faulty. You’re making crucial business decisions based off of incomplete data at best, or flat out faulty data.

[COBY]: Yeah, exactly. And they we wonder why we struggle with some of the areas that we try and do… So moving on to Strive. Strive, again, like we said it’s about improvements. It’s about innovation, it’s about collaboration, it’s about managing change. Big initiative that you want to do to optimize your organization, improve product, improve profitability and grow. And if you think that you can… when you do those things you have to ask yourself the important question, what needs to exist first for this to happen? And if you do not have engaged employees, who are willing and bought in to the new way of doing things. To the desired innovate, to the uncomfortable messiness that kind of comes with any kind of change, then they’re not going to do it. And you’re going to spend a lot of money on something that’s not going to work out in the long run.

[JAMES]: Again can you be successful, short term. You can you can White Knuckle your way through many of these problems, but you will not have sustained success unless you actually address the question of ‘what needs to exist first for this to be successful?’ at every stage of the Hierarchy. And it’s about… we all have limited resources, limited time, limited money, I mean nobody has an unlimited number of funds, and even if you have a lot of money you still don’t want to throw good money after bad. You want to be wise with how you spend it. Either you are responsible to a Board or you’re responsible to your Shareholders who are going to get mad at you for wasting money. Time, energy, effort, money, you can throw all of these things at a problem and get some success. Or you can actually systematically address the problems in a logical and intentional manner and do more with the time, energy, money, and resources that you have.

[COBY]: Yeah. So the hierarchy that we that we’re kind of really been going through, we have visuals for this and descriptions on our Knowledge Suite of our training portal Roman 3 Academy. So if you want to check this out, you can kind of get some of this written down and see some of the visuals so go to Because it might be helpful for you to actually kind of see how this all kind of plays out. But what’s funny is that when we were developing the the Hierarchy, we kind of made a lot of the same mistakes that most businesses make. And we try to start at you know kind of by jumping into two feet kind of at the top. So both James… so James mentioned this previously but he and I both came from an Economic Development background, so we worked in economic development supporting organizations and communities, regions…

[JAMES]: Regions, industries, with businesses large and small.

[COBY]: Exactly, with different programs, largely that kind of fall under the heading of Strive. Like a lot of it was continuous improvement for manufacturing, or it was tourism growth and expansion, or things like that. And the problems we always seem to run into, always kind of came down to buy-in and motivation from people. We’re trying to institute massive organizational shifts in a complacent workplace culture. And we just saw it never… you know, falling apart. It started off great and the the surveys from employees said things were going terrific, But things were not, and we saw that time and time again. So part of what we decided to do when we decided to go private sector, and formed Roman 3 was like, well we should try and work on those solutions. How can we help those businesses address them?

[JAMES]: Let’s help businesses create engaged employees, right? That was our focus and when we started out was we saw these problems. We saw what the solution was, so the answer obviously was we need to create engagement. We need to do engagement training. And we made the same mistake that most other businesses make in terms of we jumped in at Engagement, provided training to our clients, and then sat back and wondered, well why are they not getting the type of success that we know that they should get? And that question that we have been asking at every stage, and over, and over, and over again, was basically our mantra for a year. What needs to exist first, for this to be successful?

[COBY]: Yeah, and then so we started to work our way backwards. Well again, if people are not… why aren’t they engaging? Well they’re not engaged, so it’s because they don’t feel accepted, that they belong, they feel like an outsider, they feel like everything is siloed, and everything is… there’s just a sense of of assimilation.

[JAMES]: There’s cliques in the workplace.

[COBY]: Yeah, okay. So we’re like, okay so we have to address that. And then we started doing some work in around DEI and stuff like that too, then we’re like wait a minute. This is the same problem we were running to before. People are not… inclusion…. The efforts that we’re doing in, the projects that promote inclusion, they’re not being as successful as we know they could be, why is that? Well then we worked ourselves back to what has to exist first? Well then we kind of came across Psychological Safety, and then once we started doing some stuff around Psychological Safety, and then again then it came back to consistency and equitability. So then we kind of get to Compliance and then it kind of hit us. We fell down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. So we kind of scrapped a lot of our pre-existing ideas, and started from the ground up and built the Workplace Culture Hierarchy and then rebuilt our whole business around trying to scale people up the Hierarchy. And one of our most successful products that we launched recently, that’s been really helpful is our Workplace Culture Intelligence (WCI) program where we actually train middle level managers, and HR professionals, and leaders how to actually collect intelligence that will actually help them scale the Hierarchy. We certify people in using the Hierarchy to grow their business and to provide… again, the goal of culture is to create productivity and get the best work out of people. How do we do that? As James said, with intention and systematically that will actually yield the success we’re all looking for.

[JAMES]: So really it all kind of ties back to the analogy that you shared at the beginning Coby of comparing culture to electricity. It’s something that… electricity is essential to being able to power our business, it’s what powers our equipment, our buildings, our communications. And without it, we don’t have… we’re just sitting around in the dark, not being particularly productive. But the people are what make our products, they are what makes our, provide our services. And it’s our workplace culture that powers the people. Just as electricity powers our equipment, and our buildings. Workplace culture powers the people. And the idea of a workplace culture only being about making somebody feel happy or feel good about being in the workplace is relegating it to a role, like as if electricity is only good for keeping your food cold in the fridge. It just… yes that is a use or that is an outcome, that does happen. But that’s not the point.

[COBY]: Right, absolutely. And yeah so again, I think that trying to separate the ‘feeling’ of culture, from its essential element into our businesses. And being the direct causality of high performance, high productivity, you know, everything like that. I think that we really need to make sure that’s not being lost. Because if leaders are still thinking that, then they are they’re fundamentally put, you know, putting themselves at risk of making massive mistakes. Okay so I think I’ll kind of wrap this up, kind of quickly we’ve been talking for a little while, but this has been a great conversation. So again, culture is about creating an environment that will allow people to give you their best and their most work. It is not about the warm and fuzzies, it is as essential as electricity we cannot jump in and improve the employee experience without asking ourselves the important question; what needs to exist first before this will become successful? We need to be smarter than thinking that we can fix pain points in isolation. A strong culture is built on a strong Foundation. So without building up to it things like DEI initiatives, employee engagement programs, or continuous improvements are going to be doomed to fail. We have to make sure that we’re securing the foundation that will hold up our business for the long term. All right, any other thoughts or ideas James?

[JAMES]: The one last piece I want to leave people with is that remember, yes, you can have some short-lived success at higher stages. But it’s about throwing money at the problem. If you want to just keep throwing money at the problem for short-term success, great. Do what you’re doing. But if you want to actually create sustained change, sustained success, then you need to ask the question of; ‘what needs to exist first for this to be successful?

[COBY]: So that about does it for us. So for a full archive of our podcasts and access to the video version hosted on our YouTube channel visit our website at Thanks for joining us.

[ANNOUNCER]: For more information on topics like these don’t forget to visit us at Side effects of this podcast may include improved retention, high productivity, increased market share, employees breaking out in spontaneous dance, dry mouth, aversion to the sound of James’s voice, desire to find a better podcast…

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