The article is called “Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive,” and it comes from the Harvard Business Review, so you know it’s serious.
The authors, Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron, make the case for a happier, healthier office environment. It’s counterintuitive, they say: you might think that “a cut-throat, high-pressure, take-no-prisoners culture” drives financial success, but in reality, there are all sorts of hidden costs.
For example, health care expenditures are nearly 50% higher, and 60%-80% of workplace accidents are attributed to stress.
Likewise, employees in cutthroat environments are more likely to be disengaged. Disengaged employees have “37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, and 60% more errors and defects,” and the companies they’re part of experience “18% lower productivity, 16% lower profitability, 37% lower job growth, and 65% lower share price over time.”
Finally, there’s the cost of turnover: “Workplace stress leads to an increase of almost 50% in voluntary turnover,” while “businesses with highly engaged employees [enjoy] 100% more job applications.” Those numbers add up when you consider that “replacing a single employee costs approximately 20% of that employee’s salary.”
The evidence is compelling. If I’m a shareholder or a board director or an MBA grad poring over the business case, it’d be a no-brainer.
And it all seems obvious. Of course, if employees are happier and healthier, they’re more likely to be productive and stick around longer. Of course employees are more engaged when they feel “valued, secure, supported, and respected.”
But relying on positive financial outcomes as justification for the investment in a positive workplace culture implies the only reason to do it is to get the reward -- and that’s a bit of a dangerous road to go down.
What if the research showed that the best way to get higher employee engagement was to yell at them all day? Or to whip them when they started to slow down a bit?
You might think I’m being a bit extreme here. But this line of reasoning is the one that has some men thinking nice guys finish last and that they’d be more romantically successful if they acted like a jerk.
I’m absolutely thrilled that the outcomes demonstrate the value of creating cultures of well-being at work. And my hope is that we grow to recognize the need to create those cultures not just where we work, but also where we live and play. Not just for financial outcomes, but because a healthy, thriving society is just a better way to live.
Seppala and Cameron articulate six essential characteristics of a positive workplace culture: caring for and being interested in one another; supporting one another; avoiding blame; inspiring one another; emphasizing meaningfulness; and treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.
There’s not a single item on that list exclusive to the workplace. A healthy society requires us to care for one another. A thriving community requires us to support one another. A better world requires us to treat one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.
We’ve spent a long time believing that “winning” meant maximizing profits, no matter the cost to employees, customers, society or the planet. And I’m not so naive that I don’t appreciate the power of financial incentives to change behavior.
But I do think that if we continue to say the only way we can do the right thing by our people is if the financial incentives align, we are going to continue to struggle. Because when our relationships with employees become exclusively transactional, we’ve already lost.
Employees are human beings, stumbling along doing their best -- just like every other human being, including you and me. We all just want to be seen, heard, and loved. And that should be worthwhile all by itself.