Beyond the Policies, How We Work Together

by Megara Kastner, Ph.D. Organizational Development Consultant & Mandy Watrous-Gale

Member Matters,  Organizational Development

Let me start with: “I’m biased.” I’m biased toward the importance of developing an organizational culture with a structure and strategy everyone creates and embraces. It’s beyond just policies and procedures. Maybe because I am an organizational development professional. Perhaps because I have first-hand experience with the effort it takes to create culture. I’ve worked in a corner office, been a manager of siloed teams, and a front line lead. Throughout my career, I learned that a foundational team culture is the basis for quality work. It made my job easier as the Supervisor. My work now, at Employers Council, is focused on consulting with teams to build their culture.

I encourage you to take a moment and read this story from Employers Council member Mandy Watrous-Gale, Director of Member Service and Finance of the Family Resource Center Association.

When Mark, our Executive Director, and I first came to Megara and the Organizational Development Leadership (ODL) team at Employers’ Council over four years ago, we were looking for help boosting staff morale; we had no idea where to begin. Our organization had high-performing outcomes, solid funding, and a good reputation to the outside world. On the inside, our staff was polarized; we were talking about each other, as opposed to with each other; relationships were frayed; and meetings and team projects were unproductive. We knew, if something didn’t shift, we were going to lose efficiency and implode.

That was when Megara shared the idea of working with the whole staff to agree upon, and then create, the kind of workplace culture we all wanted to be a part of. She let us know it would be tough and would take a real commitment from everyone on staff. At that point, as an organization, we couldn’t afford to not give it a try.

We began meeting for half-day sessions to explore our current dynamics. More importantly, we discussed how we would replace old habits to attain the workplace culture we all wanted. It could no longer be “us” and “them” but would be “I” and “we.” What did we want? How were we going to contribute? And, most importantly, how would we hold each other accountable and see lasting change months and years after we left the training room?

With Megara’s guidance through thoughtful exercises and tough conversations, we landed on a shared vision that included agreed-upon operating principles, shared accountability, and a commitment to creating a culture where it’s safe to try and safe to fail.

After much wordsmithing, the first draft of the new operating principles spelled out nine succinct agreements for how we would show up and work together. Many of these were created in response to dynamics that were broken and needed to be repaired. The principals we relied on the most that first year included, “We seek clarity and avoid assumptions,” and “We strive to understand all points-of-view.” About a year after we created the initial principles we came together again, and with Megara’s guidance, re-worked the principles to hone in on what seemed important after that first year of our new culture. Now there are seven principles with a different tone that include statements like, “We trust each other and have positive intention,” and “We are curious, open to change and welcome innovation.”

When we agreed to create these guiding principles, we never imagined how deeply they’d become a part of everything we do. They hang framed in our conference spaces and at everyone’s desk. We review one principle every week during our staff meeting, talk about where it showed up, and perhaps more importantly, where it didn’t show up. We send the principles to job candidates and ask them during interviews which resonated most with them and why. We added them to our annual satisfaction survey with external partners, asking them to rate us on how well they think we apply the principles in our interactions with them.

The best outcome, however, was shared accountability. Now, when a staff member has the urge to pair off into a dyad and rehash an interaction that didn’t go well, their co-worker will likely listen, then offer a piece of advice from an operating principle. “You know, it sounds like you might need to have a conversation with that person. Remember how we all committed to being courageous when talking through conflict at the earliest possible moment?” Now everyone on staff is a part of making this a workplace of which we are proud.

The final piece of the puzzle for creating our ideal workplace was identifying why staff was withdrawing or triangulating with others. We learned they were afraid to reach out if they needed help or were afraid to let others know when they missed the mark. We wanted a workplace where it was okay to take risks and make mistakes and have real recognition that mistakes are a crucial part of positive growth and should be celebrated. Now, during staff meetings, we encourage sharing a project that didn’t quite work out as planned. We share them in detail, and inevitably someone will shout out, “That’s a good one for the Annual Failure Party!”

The Annual Failure Party happens at the end of every fiscal year. Staff members are encouraged to keep track of their failures all year; the more details, the better. Then we come together in July for a lunch, complete with a failure cake (and a zero candle) to share our favorite failures from the year. We laugh – a lot – recalling those low points and how we hope to never experience them again. After all the failures are shared, we vote on phrases that match up to tacky prizes. Winners in the past have received prizes like; “Head And Shoulders Above the Rest” (a tiny, glass doll with extraordinarily long legs) or “Not My Clowns, Not My Circus” (an odd statue that has been repainted several times and makes a comeback every year). All the prizes are failures in themselves, and we display them proudly at workstations or hide them throughout the office as pranks.

Four years after we started the journey with Megara and the ODL team, we have become a workplace of choice. When new employees join the team, adopting the changes we made is a seamless part of the onboarding process. We are frequently told we have a great culture. For staff like Mark and me, who have been with the organization through the transition, the changes have been monumental and sustainable. The success of our team working together doesn’t rest on his shoulders or mine, but on all of our shoulders, which is something to truly celebrate.

As the person who guided them through this process of hard and diligent work, I have witnessed the long-term benefits. Whether you are virtual, in person, or a combination; your culture matters. Employers Council has an entire team of Organizational Development professionals to assist you in building and sustaining your culture. Let us know how we can help you take your team forward.

About the author
Megara Kastner, Ph.D. Organizational Development Consultant & Mandy Watrous-Gale