The One Key to Transforming a Negative Workplace Culture

June 28, 2017Hugh Comerford

The renowned Psychologist Paul Ekman’s groundbreaking work in Facial Coding grew out of a disagreement he had with Margaret Mead in the 1960s. Mead postulated that facial expressions were culturally based, while Ekman argued they were universal. Dismissing Mead’s ‘proof’, Ekman launched a research project to see who was actually correct.

As it turned out, Ekman was correct, but there was an interesting caveat that showed Mead’s mistake in a different light: in certain cultures, facial expressions are more exaggerated than others where they were more muted.

If you go back in your memory to High school, you may recall the drama, intrigue, the cliques, the cool kids, the outcasts, the rebels etc. All the highs and lows of social snakes and ladders were there for anyone to see, and the emotions were very intense aided of course by hormones. My sister in law is an elementary principal and she has a compelling idea of how to survive high school. “All you need is 2 good friends who have your back.”. What that creates is a base of emotional solidity and a feeling of belonging — that someone has your back, that no matter what you’re covered.

Turning to a workplace culture, there’s no difference between that and the culture you survived in high school; it’s just a matter of scale and scope. The emotions, the in-crowd and the rebels are all there, but more muted depending on the emotional intelligence of the company as a whole.

If you think of a time when you did your very best work you will probably realize it was when you had a minimum of 2 influential people in your orbit who had your back and the way they treated you made you feel as if you belonged in that space. In that safe environment you were able to drop your guard and focus exclusively on doing excellent work.

Although not Daniel Pink’s precise message, if we minimize anxiety in the office (seriously — who does their best work when they are feeling panicked?), employees will be able to relax and focus on the task at hand and do much better work than if they are operating in a ‘pre-triggered’ environment.

We do our best work when we feel we belong — safe and valued as part of a team. If we can connect our work to the mission, vision and values of our organization, so much the better.

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