How to create a positive workplace culture

Creating a positive workplace culture is extremely important to cultivating a productive and profitable company. When the environment we work in is positive, we become more engaged and committed employees. By definition, workplace culture is a pattern of behaviors that are supported by a management system over time. Harnessing the power of positive reinforcement is the quickest and most efficient way to a better workplace culture.

The first step in creating a more positive workplace culture is recognizing that your current culture is not where you want it to be. It can be difficult to define your culture —almost like nailing Jell-O to a wall — because it is made up of many small behaviors. But it starts at the top with company leaders. The way they act and behave will be mirrored by employees. So if you want to change the behavior of your employees, start by changing the behavior of your leaders.

Leaders can start doing this by listening to their employees and understanding what motivates them. Get to know them, ask them their opinions, and share yours in return. I think the most powerful things that bosses can do are communicate, be transparent, and tell people where the ship is headed. Bosses should be asking questions like, “What are we doing that we could be doing better? What’s broken, and how can we fix it?” Ask those questions, listen to the employees and, most importantly, empower the employees to go fix the problems.

Research tells us that more than money, employees want to feel like they are making a difference at work and getting recognized by their boss for making that difference.

As employees, we want the ability to do things, to change things. So often employees’ ideas are not listened to or acted upon. It is the boss’s responsibility to provide the money, the time, and the resources for employees to complete tasks and make improvements, and to then celebrate and recognize those people for their contributions.

Now, this goes against many traditional management styles — the command-and-control, my-way-or-the-highway mindsets of old. The majority of bosses do what I call “Leave Alone/Zap” management. Simply put, it means that we leave employees alone and say nothing when they do something right, but we are quick to “zap” them when they make a mistake.

This kind of aggressive management style might get the job done temporarily, but it doesn’t create an environment where employees will take the initiative to do things when their supervisor isn’t watching. And it will not produce the highest-performing culture possible.

Rosabeth Moss-Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School and an author of numerous books on business management techniques, said, “Compensation is a right. Recognition is a gift.” In other words, paychecks get people to show up for work. But to get more from people than just average performance requires you as a leader to provide additional coaching and feedback when people demonstrate the behaviors that drive results in your company. Bosses who think they don’t need to tell their employees they are doing a good job are not fully engaging them. It doesn’t cost you any money to tell somebody they did a great job. Believe it or not, saying thank you for doing a good job is a much more powerful motivator than a paycheck.



Bosses should give employees immediate, sincere feedback when they demonstrate desired behaviors. That way, the employee will be more likely to repeat those behaviors in the future. That’s the power of positive reinforcement. If you don’t do that, then you won’t get those extra behaviors.

For 40 years, my company has designed and implemented behavior-based systems and approaches that bring continual improvement with positive reinforcement. In my work as a business consultant, I have built more than 1,000 recognition programs for companies such as DuPont, Coca-Cola, and Ford. They recognized that their work environments could be better and sought help and ways to fix it.

What I’ve learned from helping so many companies is that without positive reinforcement, you are getting less performance from your team than you could be and your workplace culture will suffer. It’s only a matter of time before some other company does it better and leaves you in the dust, taking your good employees with them.

In my workshops, I frequently ask bosses, “Is culture change fast or slow?” Most people think it’s slow, but in reality, you can change culture in one day if you know how. Culture change is as simple as changing the behavior of the leadership team. By inverting the leadership structure and delegating responsibility to employees, culture can shift dramatically and quickly. Move too slowly and employees might think you are not taking their ideas and suggestions seriously. But like dieting, culture change is something you must continue to work at. Day in and day out.

So there you have it. When a workplace culture is positive and happy, the employees are happy, and they work harder to make their clients happy. The end result will be that profitability will increase and turnover will decrease. But remember: Creating a positive work culture starts at the top. If you want a positive team, you must be a positive leader. And the best leaders are those who truly harness the power of positive reinforcement to create high-performing teams who do the right thing even when leaders aren’t watching.

Bill Sims Jr. is president of The Bill Sims Co., Inc. For nearly 30 years, he has created behavior-based recognition programs that have helped large and small firms deliver positive reinforcement to inspire better performance from employees and increase bottom-line profits. He is the author of Green Beans & Ice Cream: The Remarkable Power of Positive Reinforcement.