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Training & Development

How a caring leader can create a culture of support

December 21, 2016 by University of Massachusetts Global




We've all heard these "buzz words" and phrases for years - popular ideas that we hope are panaceas to make our work environment more pleasant and productive. Employee turnover, discontent and squandered talent are issues all organizations face, and yet some do a better job at retaining and motivating their employees than others. At times, we end up scratching our heads, wondering which, if any, of the newest ideas could work for us. Instead, I want to turn our attention to a concept whose foundation predates buzz words. I want to talk about creating a Culture of Support.


First, let's define "support." Merriam-Webster provides seven definitions, so let me highlight just a few:

  1. To agree with or show that you approve of (someone or something) by doing something
  2. To give help or assistance to (someone or something)
  3. a (1) : to promote the interests or cause of (2) : to uphold or defend as valid or right : advocate <supports fair play> (3) : to argue or vote for <supported the motion to lower taxes> b (1) : assist, help<bombers supported the ground troops> (2) : to act with (a star actor) (3) : to bid in bridge so as to show support for

Support can come in the form of tools and resources, as well as in what we say and how we behave.

Another word worth defining here is "culture." Again, Merriam-Webster suggests the following:

  1. The beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time
  2. A particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.
  3. A way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)

In part, culture is about expectations. We expect certain behaviors to exist within an organization, and those behaviors, good or bad, are chosen. We choose them intentionally or by accident, through repeated behaviors and attitudes.

More importantly, culture is not just "the way we do things around here" (quoting organizational development pioneers Terrance Deal and Allan Kennedy); more than that, culture is also the way we feel about each other within the organization. This starts with leaders and the attitudes they have toward their employees, and moves outward.


Management consultant Geoff Schaadt, wrote a post on LinkedIn about the recent recording of a cable television customer trying, with great difficulty, to disconnect his service. In that audio file, we hear the representative provide deplorable service. Schaadt wrote, "The culture of your organization dictates the actions of your employees." He goes on to say, "Service reps never have insane conversations like this unless the culture of the company forces them to." On the flip side, if you want to create a positive environment you have to provide it - it doesn't create itself.

There are two sides to creating a Culture of Support. One measures productivity and provides the tools and resources to ensure success. The other focuses on motivation and encouragement of the employees' emotional success. From there, the process must be "top down" to be effective. While front-line behaviors may affect the customer experience, workplace culture is created by an organization's top leaders.

Empathy and Trust

All relationships are built on two foundational concepts: empathy and trust. If either is missing, the relationship either fails to progress, or ends completely. Sincerity is vital to communicating empathy - if I do not believe you're being sincere when saying that you can appreciate my perspective, trust is unlikely to follow.

Some of us are uncomfortable wading in the waters of "feelings." I occasionally hear colleagues dismiss the emotional side of the workplace as "touchy-feely," disregarding the need for empathy, and instead believe that money and/or position are the only effective motivators. However, a surprisingly large portion of our employees (especially among "Millennials") are actually motivated less by money and more by "quality of life" choices like paid time off or high-quality recognition programs.

Most of the time, the best work cultures are "safe environments" - places where everyone is encouraged to talk about the important subjects, especially uncomfortable topics, and where the messenger doesn't get shot. Individual perspectives and contributions are supported on and across every level, and employees are empowered to positively influence their work environments by leaders who support their ideas and do something with them. These leaders build trust.


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The "Want To" Environment

There are two types of environments we can create: a "Want To" environment, and a "Have To" environment. In other words, we can create a culture where employees "want to" come to work, want to work hard, and want to produce quality work; or we create a culture where employees "have to" go to work, are coerced to do their work, and are disengaged and bitter.

Both environments achieve compliance to expectations at similar rates. However, in a "Want To" environment, employees actually do more than what is required and they appreciate the opportunities they have to do so, while in a "Have To" environment, they only do the minimum work required and are generally resentful for having to do it. When leaders demonstrate sincere empathy toward their employees, they are more likely to make choices that result in a "Want To" culture.

There are many things that employees are required to do in a "Want To" environment, and this is the litmus test to determine which culture has been created: when a leader in a "Want To" environment gives a mandatory assignment, his/her employees still appreciate the opportunity. The "emotional stock" remains intact, and the morale remains high. Author and speaker Brian Tracy said it best: "A person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected." And in order to maintain that morale, the leader must circle back to consistently show caring for the employees in sincere and recognizable ways.

Caring Leaders

It has been my personal experience that organizations where leaders sincerely care about the well-being of their people than they do productivity or profitability generally see a greater sense of enthusiasm and engagement within the ranks. The culture is far more supportive of employees' ideas, contributions and team efforts. In return, employees will naturally take ownership of the outcomes, and profitability organically results. When supervisors, managers and leaders sincerely care, their direct reports generally feel more appreciated and reciprocate it.

In his book, The Customer Comes Second (revised 2002, Harper Business Publishing), Hal Rosenbluth describes how he changed the culture of Rosenbluth Travel, the company founded by his grandfather, from highly political and ego-driven to one where senior leaders cared specifically for and about their direct reports. Those managers then demonstrated the same caring to their direct reports, which rippled through the entire organization to create the best customer experience in the industry. The result? Over a relatively short period of time, the shift to caring about the employees transformed his small family business into the largest privately-held travel company in the world, grossing over $6 billion in revenues by the year 2000.

Fast Company Magazine published an article by Allyson Willoughby of Glassdoor in their March 31, 2014 edition on How to Create a Workplace People Love Coming To. In it she identified five drivers to create this culture:

  1. People matter
  2. Employees feel heard
  3. People are empowered to grow
  4. Leaders are strong*
  5. Employees are appreciated.

In these five ways, leaders can create a supported work environment with less turnover and burnout by caring for employees in impactful ways. (*She defines strong leaders as those who are “accessible to employees and are leading their organizations with clear, articulated direction for growth.” She does not mention holding employees accountable, or by controlling them.)

In the end, it's the "touchy-feely" principles of sincere caring that make the difference in creating a culture of support - the "Want To" environment employees want.

Service-Oriented Focus

Stephen R. Covey said, “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.” By putting employee satisfaction, growth and well-being ahead of profits, we create a culture that promotes service to our customers. One cannot reasonably expect to have employees provide customers with great experiences unless they, themselves, are having great experiences. And while employees have an impact on organizational culture and need to participate, it is not the responsibility of employees to create it.

This effort must start at the top – with self-aware C-level executives and top leaders who support their employees in sincere and meaningful ways. Many of us are familiar with the phrase “No one can serve two masters.” If the employee is to serve the customer, we cannot expect that same employee to serve his/her boss. Instead, the boss needs to lead the service effort to promote the work of the employee and create a culture of support – so that both leader and employee work together to create the environment that best serves the customer.

Personal Commitment And Ownership

By the same token, employees must join leaders in making personal commitments to the outcomes they desire. We all own the organizational culture we have, and we all have a responsibility to shine a light on those areas that need improvement and work on solutions to issues. No one gets a pass. Leaders have a responsibility to maintain safe environments for their employees to be frank, and to avoid favoritism, judgment and roadblocks. Employees are responsible for being the eyes and ears within the organization and to speak up to identify which corners need the light.

So how do we do it?

Brené Brown offers 10 questions to help us determine our culture in her book Daring Greatly  (©2012, Gotham Books). They are:

  1. What behaviors are rewarded
  2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money attention)
  3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced and ignored?
  4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
  5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
  6. What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
  7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
  8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
  9. How prevalent are shame and blame, and how are they showing up?
  10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

By asking these questions of ourselves and each other, we can figure out what kind of culture we currently have in our organization. Then, if we come back with answers that indicate a lack of validation, approval, appreciation, resources, trust, or empathy, we stand a better chance of transforming our environment into a Culture of Support by addressing the real issues. We have to be willing to make the choices that lead to this culture instead of waiting for it to happen on its own.



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