Randy Grieser offers actionable pointers to keep a workplace culture healthy and thriving.
- How trust is built in the workplace
- The 6 key elements of a healthy workplace culture
- Do’s and don’ts for effective conflict management
Randy Grieser is the founder and CEO of ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance. He is the author of The Ordinary Leader, and co-author of The Culture Question. Randy is passionate about sharing the importance of creating healthy workplace cultures, and believes leadership requires us to always be intentional about what we do and how we do it.
- Book: “The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work”
- Company Website: AchieveCentre.com
- Website: TheOrdinaryLeader.com
Resources mentioned in the show:
- Book: “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink
- Book: “Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012: A Fortune Magazine Book” by Carol J. Loomis
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Randy, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Yeah, thanks for having me on your show.
Absolutely. Well, could we start by hearing about some of your mountain biking escapades?
Yeah. well, it’s all about having fun and being happy. I think all of us need at least one thing that just really gets us going. I was in Canmore, Canada which is just a beautiful mountain biking area, and I hadn’t been on my bike for about a week, and we flew in. My wife and I grabbed our bikes, went to the hills and we were having supper that night, and I said, “Oh, that just made me happy,” right?
So, yeah, I like to get out as much as I can. I’m not like top of the world-class athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a great way to explore the wilderness. We’re also headed into the Isle of Skye in Scotland in September which is going to be super cool.
Oh, absolutely. Well, another thing I find super cool, other than forced segues, is you did a huge study on workplace cultures. Can you tell me what was sort of some of your most striking discoveries there?
Yeah, absolutely. When we started to put some work into our book “The Culture Question” we also put together kind of a survey of things we’d like to know about. And the fascinating thing with that, of course, is you don’t know what you’re going to get. So, we had some ideas about what we might find but probably the most exciting thing we found was the secret to having your employees trust you as a leader.
And so, we correlated 20 questions to the question of, “I like where I work.” And for everyone who said, “I like,” where they worked, the two strongest questions that correlated was this, “I trust my direct supervisor.” And for any of you listening who is a manager, is a supervisor, you know how important that is. Trust is the holy grail.
When your employees trust you, they’re going to move mountains with you. You’re not going to have to beat them or to use the saying “the carrot and the stick,” right? You’re not going to have to beat them or give them a reward. They’re going to work towards your mission and vision because they want to and because they’re inspired by you.
And so, the statement that most correlated with “I trust my direct supervisor” was this, “My supervisor cares about me as a person.” Think about that, Pete. To us that was just like, “Wow, we didn’t expect to find that.” But the secret to trust is simply just caring about your staff at a human level.
You know, we’ve heard that theme come up a few times from places like a Navy Seal and more. So, yeah, let’s dig into that. So, caring, what are some ways that supervisors do a great job of caring and some ways that they frequently fall short and maybe just totally overlook it?
Absolutely. Well, first of all, I should have full disclosure here because when people attend my presentations or go to my workshops, they see that I’m actually a clinically-trained social worker, and so they roll their eyes, and say, “Well, of course, a clinically-trained social worker would talk about caring leadership.” It’s like the C word is this very scary word for people.
But I always tell people, “I’m a social worker. I don’t do therapy with my employees but I just ask them questions. I just care about them at a human level.” Like, right now, one of our employees, a partner, is in palliative care, and we’ve been really thoughtful about, “How do we support someone who’s going through something like that?” I have another staff member who has a child that has special needs, and, “How do we support an employee who periodically needs to leave the office to go care for the child?”
Probably my favorite story I like to tell though that really gets at the heart of caring leadership is I was giving this presentation and speaking about this, and someone came up to me afterwards and said, “Randy, this is so important to have a caring leadership. I’ve worked in my organization for two years, and my supervisor doesn’t know I have children.” And I said, “Well, you know, you should be asking someone if they have children the first day of the job.”
But, Pete, anybody you know who’s got children between the age of 5 and 15, on a Friday at the end of the day, if you say to them, “Hey, weekend is coming up. What are you doing this weekend?” What do they say, Pete?
It depends with the kids.
Yeah, I’m taking my kids. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, at a fundamental level, caring is not about doing therapy, it’s just like care about your staff, “What did you do this weekend? You’re going away to a vacation. We’re in the midst of the summer. You’re taking a week off. Where are you going?” “Oh, I’m going with my kids,” right? So, it’s really just about caring about people at a human level.
Well, that is quite illustrative in terms of maybe a wakeup call, and it’s like, “Oh, I guess I’m not in a habit of asking. If someone says I’m in the habit of asking those questions,” then you may very well find yourself in that boat where you don’t even know about them having kids.
Yeah. And even at just a practical level, I mean, you said, “What more can you do?” Like, one of the things that I meet so many managers, is they’re so busy working that they never eat with anybody else, right? And I don’t spend an hour eating with my staff. I don’t even spend half an hour eating with staff, but I’ve consciously chosen for that 10 minutes where I’m going to scarf down food, I mean, you can’t really work on the computer while you’re scarfing down food, right? So, I might as well spend it with people and just chat with them a little bit.
Certainly. Well, I’d like to hear some more of that. So, asking basic questions, spending some time with food. Other key ways that supervisor show care and fail to show care?
Yeah, really, we just need to spend time with people, build relationships. One of the core tenets of a healthy workplace culture that we talk about in the book is building meaningful relationships. And it’s not just with managers and employees, but with everybody. What are we doing as an organization where we are fostering genuine connections?
And one of the things we found in our interviews with people, and we found even just in our work as consultants when we go into organizations, is organizations that are healthy, people like each other and people laugh, people smile, people spend time together. It’s just so clear when you walk into an organization, you feel that, right?
My wife and I, when we were in Canmore this weekend, we went to a couple different restaurants. And there was one restaurant where it was just striking that people hated being there. The service was terrible, people weren’t smiling, people weren’t connecting. And then you go to another restaurant, and it’s like the waiter staff, they’re having fun with each other, right? They’re bumping into each other, they’re chitchatting.
And so, if you think about that, even in just your daily interactions, you go to the coffee shop, you go to the grocery store, you can see a healthy culture at work and people caring about each other. And so, when we build workplaces where people genuinely enjoy each other’s company, we’re knocking one of the things that we need to do out of the park right away. And, again, I’ve yet to come into a healthy organization where people don’t like each other and don’t have a little fun.
Like each other, having fun, makes total sense. Are there maybe some common workplace, I don’t know, practices or policies that get in the way of that, that maybe should go?
Well, yeah, I’ll name a few things here. One is the obvious which is in the spirit of trying to improve workplace culture, people focus on perks, right? And so, nothing drives me up the wall more than when I see some national publication release, “Our best places to work” And, inevitably, we have things like, you know, free beer on Friday nights, “Yay, let’s all go get drunk with our friends.” Really? Like, that’s what makes a great place to work? And the proverbial foosball table, right?
Exactly. Or bring your pet to work day or free yoga. And there’s nothing wrong with those perks but in a lot of time, management will check or tick off the list, and say, “Listen, we’ve done what we needed to do to create a healthy workplace culture.” And many organizations just can’t even afford these things, right, to be frank. We work with a lot of not-for-profit agencies, I’m doing education systems. They can’t afford perks and so you’ve got to do stuff beyond that as well.
Some policies and practice I’ve seen that have gone the wrong way is mentorship programs. I love mentorship programs, mentoring people. My most important task as a leader is to mentor people. And some formalized mentor programs get it wrong because they only mentor some people, “And, Pete, you’re special, you’re one of the few. Aren’t you lucky you get to be mentored by me?” And what does that do to everybody else, is it demotivates them, right?
And so, our approach with mentorship is like everybody should be motivated, everyone should be growing and working towards. And so, we really don’t like those mentorship programs where there’s the kind of like, “You’re special.”
Awards, right? You know, for achievements, for doing things, right? Awards have that kind of counterintuitive effect where for anybody with young children, you’ve always promised that you were never going to say, “I need you to clean your room, and if you clean your room, I’m going to give you something,” right? And the moment you break down and you do that, and you say, “Son or daughter, if you clean your room, I’m going to give you an award.” What happens the next time you need them to clean their room?
They want the award.
They want the award, right? And so, then award becomes kind of this expectation as opposed to a way to actually motivate people. And so, there’s nothing wrong with perks for the sake of perks and within reason, but when we only focus on perks at the expense of those other things that really help us make healthy workplace cultures, we don’t do ourselves well in terms of helping us create that culture.
Well, you laid out six key elements of a healthy workplace culture: communicating purpose and values, providing meaningful work, focusing leadership team on people, building meaningful relationships, creating peak-performing teams, and practicing constructive conflict management. I want to talk about the last one because I think there are many organizations where there’s just a whole lot of fear going on. It’s like, “I can’t really tell you what I’m thinking, so I’m just going to say nothing,” or, “Boy, if we argue, we’re not arguing well. There’s like collateral damage.” So, how do we pull that off?
Yeah, absolutely right. I always say you can do a lot of things well but the moment people hate each other, the moment people are living in fear, it’s going to be very difficult for you to be a successful organization and to function effectively, right? And so, when it comes to practicing conflict management, a few things that we really want to focus on is we want to start with leaders.
Interestingly, the second highest correlated statement that we found was that when leaders practice conflict management effectively, employees also do as well. We teach conflict resolution skills in one of the trainings that we offer. And one of the common themes we get from participants is, “I wish my manager would’ve been here,” right?
And managers think they’ve got it all figured out, but there’s a lot of managers that don’t. They tend to avoid and even I sometimes, I’m like, “Are we five years old? You got two kids in a sandbox, like, you’re not five. Learn to figure it out.”
So, one of the most important things is to just be aware of how detrimental on manage conflict. Conflict is inevitable. It’s going to happen, right? It’s natural. We’re human beings. In and of itself it’s not bad. It’s how we manage it. Ironically, one of the ways that we build a culture that manages conflict effectively is we actually have to have some experiences of conflict and some experiences of getting to the other side, and going like, “Oh, you’re not a terrible human being. Like, we had a disagreement, but then we had a natural human conversation and we resolved this issue.”
So, it’s kind of counterintuitive but you do need to experience some level of conflict to actually learn to deal with it effectively. And so, absolutely, I run a training organization so I believe in training. One of the problems we get, Pete, is often we get requests for training like conflict resolution skills or respect for workplace training too late. It’s when we hate each other, you know.
And then it’s like, “Well, the training was actually meant to be before we hate each other so that we can actually work through these things. Now that we hate each other here, you might need to do some things like mediation, or some assessments, and group conflict mediation-type work, but a simple training is a band-aid effect when we’re really not doing well.” So, right away from the get-go we want to be establishing a culture that manages conflict effectively.
For those of you in leadership, that means holding people accountable. It doesn’t mean jumping in and saving the day, right, and being the hero for everybody. Sometimes it means meeting with people and coaching people, “Hey, I noticed that you and Susan aren’t talking anymore. What’s that about?” And holding people accountable and saying, “You need to figure this out because this isn’t going to be healthy in the long run.”
I’ll tell you one of the worst experiences I had with conflict and not being managed effectively, in our own organization, that’s one of the things I want to note, Pete, is a lot of our insights that we talk about in our book and that we teach in our presentations as training has come out of when we weren’t doing well, right? There’s been periods where we’ve learned the hard way.
And one of the worst experiences I had with conflict was with when someone was withholding information because they wanted someone else to look bad. And then when a mistake happened and it made us look bad, he gloated and said, “I knew that was going to happen. I just wanted you to see for yourself.” And I was like, “Oh, my, this conflict has gotten too far.”
Certainly. Well, so, okay, that’s something clearly to not do. Don’t hold information and look to make people embarrass themselves and fail. Check. What are some of the other key do’s and don’ts for effective conflict management?
Yeah, you know, really from an employee-to-employee perspective, it’s creating the culture of honest mutual feedback, giving people feedback, being sensitive about it, not being a jerk about it. But when you see something, say something. If something bothers you, don’t wait for it to fester, right?
And so, one of the things that I do, within our organization, is we partner people up. We say, “Listen, if you have to have a difficult conversation with someone, we have a lot of people here who have experienced doing that, get together with someone and roleplay.” Earlier on in my career as a manager, one time I did the classic, you know, the appropriate coaching someone, “Well, instead of me saving the day, why don’t you go have that conversation with that person?” Well, the person went ahead and had a conversation with this person, it was like, “You know, you swear words, swear swords, swear words. “If you ever do this again, I’m going to knock your head off.”
And I went back to the other person and say, “I told you to go talk to him.”
“Well, you told me to go talk to the person and I went and talked to him my way.” And I’m like, “Oh, so when I’m coaching you to actually have the conversation, I had assumed you knew how to have an appropriate conversation but I actually need to walk you through that.”
I’m a big believer in roleplay as a leader. When I used to have difficult conversations, I roleplay with some of my peer leaders to just kind of practice it and get it out there. One of the most important things we encourage our staff is to not to see the other person as a terrible person. Most people genuinely are reasonable people. 95% of us are pretty good human beings, we don’t really actually want to hurt people’s feelings, but we do stupid stuff sometimes, right?
And so, the first thing is just to shift. You know, we have a T-shirt actually, Pete, and I should send it to you actually. And it’s a great T-shirt that says, “Shift judgment to curiosity.” And, really, what that’s about is, like, when you think that someone is being a jerk, actually just be thoughtful for a second, and go, “Well, maybe they don’t mean that.” So, instead of judging them, be curious, “Why are they acting in this way?” It doesn’t mean how they were acting is right but it kind of humanizes our relationship a little bit more. So, it’s one of our favorite sayings, “Shift judgment to curiosity.”
Yeah, that’s good. And so, I’m curious, so screening the swear words is not the way to go, and doing some roleplay in advance can be super valuable. Any other pro tips for the actual conversation?
Yeah, really, one of the things that we try to stay away from is the emotion when we have a difficult conversation and focus on the problem and the task at hand, right? So, don’t make it about what your intent was but actually just focus on, “This is how it made me feel.” And so, we go back to the classic communication 101 I-statements, right? “When you do this, this is how it makes me feel.”
Most of the time that person didn’t know that. Most of the time that person wasn’t aware that your intent, right? We have a little diagram we have, it’s called Action, Intent, and Effect, right? And the action is what’s out in the public for people to see, but the intent is hidden, and the effect is hidden. So, sometimes even I will do something I have no clue how it would’ve landed on you. And so, we really encourage our staff to focus on the intent and the effect of people.
First of all, we just want to build a culture that has low levels of conflict to begin with, right? And, again, that’s where we start to get into some of our other areas. When we hire people, that’s one of the things we focus on. Like, one of our core values is that we want people to embody what we teach. We teach people to be respectful in the workplace. We teach people to manage conflict effectively so we expect people to do that.
And so, we’ve crafted our interviewing questions to hire for people who fit our culture. And so right away, when we have new people come in into the organization, if we sense that they’re fit in our culture, we nip things in the bud right away. So, in general, when it comes to implementing some of these six principles and elements of healthy workplace cultures, when it comes to the people effect, we need to start right from when we hire people.
Understood. And so, if you’re talking to a professional who is not in control, they’re not sort of leading the organization, shaping the culture from the top, are there some basic things you recommend that all people can do to contribute to oozing the culture and fun and liking each other vibes?
You know, absolutely. I mean, first of all, I’ll say that clearly leadership sets the tone of healthy workplace cultures, right? And time and time again I run into employees who really want to improve that healthy culture but leadership is not on board. And so, one of the first tasks that you have to do as an employee is try to influence leadership.
And I use the experience, when we go back to the point about negative conflict, because I say, “This is not just about the wellbeing of employees in the workplace. This is about your financial wellbeing as well.” And so, sometimes I use that approach to senior leaders, right? By the fact that we don’t have a healthy workplace culture, people aren’t sharing information, we’re not communicating well, people are not engaged because they’re just putting in their time for a paycheck, and so they’re not being as innovative. Like, this is affecting our ability to be successful as an organization.
So, one of the reasons that we need to care about this as leaders is because it’s actually going to help us, if you’re a business, it’s going to help you financially. If you’re a social service agency or not-for-profit, it’s just about being an effective contributor to whatever role you’re doing. And so, when I’m giving this talk to C-suite professionals who sometimes need a little bit more grease to get them to think and care about the wellness of their employees, I really hammer home this point about, “When you have a healthy workplace culture, this is your competitive advantage.”
And one of the persons interviewed, he clearly said to me, “Randy, I could’ve jumped ship to a competitor, it would’ve increased my salary.” He was already making a six-figure salary, and he said, “I could’ve made 50% more, but I didn’t go because I love the place I work. And a couple of years ago I went to this Angelina and Brad Pitt divorce scenario where it was just like all over. It was terrible. Like, I was in the courts all the time. And my senior staff, they had my back. They knew that this was important to me, they didn’t make me feel bad. So, why would I leave this place? They’ve been great to me. Why would I?”
And so, one of the things we talk about is money matters at the lowest end of the level, but for many people, I mean, there are some professions, I think of the sales profession as an exception there, but for many people, man, when they have a great place to work, they don’t want to leave that environment, right, because they worked in places that aren’t a great place to work.
And so, when you get senior leadership, as an employee if you kind of get senior leadership to talk and do that, I’ve had frontline employees grab this book and just show it to their leader, and say, “You know, it would really be great if you could read this and we can talk about this,” right? And there’s been slowly, you know, people begin to change.
One of the most exciting things that I’ve seen within healthy organizations is, time and time again, when I talk to leaders and managers, they say one of their biggest issues is access and retention to key talent, right? Well, the secret to access and retention of key talent is be a great place to work and your employees will bring in people for you. When there’s job openings, they’ll say, “Hey, you should come work here because we’re a great place to work.”
Perfect. Well, Randy, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear a couple of your favorite things?
Well, it depends on what else you’re going to ask me. You know, absolutely. I like to just kind of review the six key elements, if I may. I’ll do kind of a quick summary. We’ve talked about the importance of conflict management. Communicating your purpose and values, like most employees want to work in an organization that matters, that makes a difference. Most in organizations want to be guided and connected to that purpose.
Meaningful work. Most people don’t want to do work that is just boring and irrelevant. And so, making sure that people’s interest and ability and purpose all align together. There’s things that you could do there. Focusing your leadership team on people. Really, that caring about people we’ve talked about. Building meaningful relationships, people want to like who they work with. We’ve spent the vast majority of our waking hours at work. Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually liked each other?
And one of the kind of unique things that we’ve focused on in our book was the importance of creating peak performance teams. It’s really hard to know that we have a culture if we literally don’t work together. And I’ve walked into organizations that’s, true, they don’t work together. We have a bunch of individuals who show up, they don’t even say hi to each other, they go to their little cubicle, they do whatever they do all day, and they leave. So, it’s really difficult to establish a culture when we’re not working together in teams.
So, those were kind of the six key things that, really, we want to focus on. And, again, instead of perks, focus on these six things then you’re going to have your healthy culture.
And now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
You know, I don’t memorize things well, but I’ll be honest, my daughter inspires me. She’s 16 years old. She’s super ambitious. Last weekend, we climbed a mountain together and we spent seven hours. It was seven hours and it was quite the slug. And there were several things that she said on the trip that I thought, “This is so cool that my 16-year old daughter can think this way.”
And one of the things that we talked about was sustained effort. We’ve been hiking up this mountain for four hours and it got really steep, and it was she said it’s like two steps forward, one step back. And we had a conversation about sustained effort. What was kind of funny is we lost my partner and her mom, right, along the way. When I say we lost, she just stopped climbing because she got scared. And my daughter had said to her, my daughter was trying to be encouraging her, and this is a great quote from a 16-year old, right, “Don’t let fear stop you from living life.”
And I thought, “How brilliant is that?” I’m super inspired by my daughter for thinking that way and for persevering and continuing on.
And how about a favorite book?
You know, I pick this book up probably six, seven years ago, and I just can’t help but always going back to it. Can I give you two books, Pete?
You know, one, I love stories of other people. I love stories of people building things unique. And one of my favorite books, it seems a bit odd, but it’s the biography of Warren Buffett “Tap Dancing to Work.” I believe passion is so important in how we work and if we want to inspire other people to be excited about their job. I love the fact that Warren Buffett is, what, 87, 88 years old now, literally still runs the business, not like a fake corner office but actually is doing real work. And, yet, he’s given away everything.
And even the title of the book “Tap Dancing to Work” so, he really taps into, man, we got to like what we do, right? I mean, my son has graduated from high school, and he’s torn about what he does, and I’m like, “I don’t care what you do, but you better like it. Be excited about it. Be passionate about it because it’s a long 40 years if you’re not passionate about work.” So, I just love some of Warren’s thoughts and quotes. And everyone thinks of him as a finance person, but he’s a great manager and a great leader as well.
Another shout-out is to who we really resonate when it comes to how to motivate people is Daniel Pink and his book “Drive.” I really, really kind of pinpointed in the three core areas of autonomy, mastery, purpose. We touched on even some of those in our six areas, right? So, really, he was a pioneer in kind of shifting the way we think about motivation and employee engagement.
So, those are my two big books.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Well, come to our website Achieve Centre. We are based in Canada. We do work in the US as well. So, Centre is spelled with an R-E. It makes it unique. So, AchieveCentre.com.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Yeah. You know, you want to be awesome at your job, just be nice, be a nice person, be kind, right? Somebody the other day asked me, “What do you look for when you’re hiring people?” I’m like, “We want to work with nice people. Like, at the end of the day, I want to like you as a human being.” So, you know what, if we’re all a little bit nice to each other, we’re going to be awesome at our job, and we’re going to make awesome workplaces.
Beautiful. Well, Randy, thanks for this, and keep on caring.
Yeah, thanks for having me on your show, Pete.