Thriving at Work: How Organizational Culture Affects Workplace Fulfillment

By Davenport, Thomas O. | People & Strategy, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Thriving at Work: How Organizational Culture Affects Workplace Fulfillment


Davenport, Thomas O., People & Strategy


Workplace culture is to employees as soil is to plants. In some organizations, cultural soil rich with nutrients allows people to grow and thrive. In other organizations, the earth Is thin and rocky. In an Impoverished social environment, people strain to survive and produce and their psychological and physical health may be compromised. Managers play a key role In determining whether the culture of an enterprise, as experienced by employees, contributes to or undermines employee well-being.

The Two Sides of Culture

Edgar Schein, one of the leading academic theorists on corporate culture, defines culture as a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group has learned as it solves problems of external pressure and internal cooperation. These assumptions have worked well enough to be considered valid, and so have evolved over time into norms and principles for behavior.

Results from a recent Towers Watson survey on workplace stress, manager behavior, and organizational culture lead us to conclude that organizational norms and values can be divided into two simple categories. The human side of culture encompasses the value placed on individual employees and their experiences as they go about their work and live their lives within the company. Culture's human side incorporates four distinct elements, each of which can be anchored by a pair of semantically opposite end points, as shown in Exhibit 1.

The work side of culture consists of five elements incorporating the norms that influence how tasks are configured. Exhibit 2 shows the five work side elements and the semantic end points.

Each pair of end points represents extremes on a continuum. In most cases, employee respondents define current culture as a point about midway between the opposites. But employees also tell us they believe cultural norms should become more compatible with employee physical, psychological, and emotional health. Our survey findings tell us what the shift would look like.

Culture, Workplace Stress, and Fulfillment

An organization's cultural environment can either increase or reduce employee stress. Workplace stressors, in turn, can take a dramatic toll

on individuals and employers alike. A study by researchers at Stanford and Harvard estimates that workplace stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for as much as $190 billion in health care costs in the U.S. Eliminating all stressors from the work environment is impractical. Some level of stress is simply too tightly woven into the fabric of most companies' work environment. Supervisors and managers, however, have great power to modify stressors and introduce stress-buffering conditions into the workplace. The best managers don't eliminate stress--they can't. Instead, they alleviate its worst aspects and transform what remains into positive energy. This transformation can not only reduce the unhealthy effects of stress, but also increase employee satisfaction and productivity. In these organizations people thrive.

Managers exercise their influence over workplace stress in part by how they mold the culture of their work units. The manager tool kit for shaping local culture contains four principal approaches:

* Calibrating work to fit individual abilities and aspirations

* Providing social support that builds employees' productive energy

* Enhancing autonomy, giving individuals stress-reducing control over the what, when, where, and how of work

* Ensuring that intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are commensurate with employees' perceived contributions

Managers who skillfully put these techniques to use create a social environment that nurtures and sustains high levels of personal and organizational health.

Dealing with the Human Side

In our survey of employees and their experiences of workplace stress, we discovered a number of gaps between the perceptions of current organizational culture and the cultural norms that define a high-fulfillment environment. …

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