Creating a positive culture in business

RSM Outlook magazine talks with alumna Marcella Bremer (MScBA Management of Change, 1990), author of Developing a positive culture where people and performance thrive, and to Prof. Dirk van Dierendonck from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), about what it takes to encourage a culture of positivity in the workplace, and why a sense of organisational and individual purpose is integral to success.

Story by Tim Skelton

Creating a positive cultural change within an organisation can have enormous benefits. It is not only good for performance and profits, employees also feel valued. ‘It enhances people’s intrinsic motivation. If you want them to do their best and be innovative, you cannot tell them what to do,’ Dirk van Dierendonck, professor of human resource management at RSM, explains. ‘You depend on their willingness and commitment. If people resonate with the mission and values of an organisation, they will find ways to contribute.’

A negative spiral

This trend towards positivity is relatively recent. ‘When I graduated in 1990 we still used the problem-focused management paradigm: analysing problems and fixing them to go back to normal. It was only later that new theories and tools such as Positive Psychology and Appreciative Inquiry developed,’ RSM alumna Marcella Bremer says.

If managers focus on the negative, she continues, employees feel cautious and risk getting into a negative spiral. They close off and won’t ask questions, which is when mistakes get repeated.

‘Positive leadership means taking a “glass half full” approach: looking for positive potential within a team, and at what is working well. Instead of going back to normal by simply fixing problems, it means thinking about how to develop the potential to achieve positive deviance.’

More effort than you ask for

Treating staff as people and developing their strengths creates positivity. ‘When employees feel acknowledged they feel confident, and they are more creative, relaxed and energetic. They are also more open to learning new skills and giving feedback,’ Bremer continues.

‘This means moving away from a fear-based culture,’ Prof. Van Dierendonck adds. ‘When people are unhappy they resort to just-in-time actions, and the organisation slows down. You need people who are willing to put in more effort than you ask for.’

Leaders must use their influence

In traditional thinking, a manager giving employees a sense of empowerment was a top-down action. ‘Leaders are important, and our brains are wired to look up to people in positions of power,’ Bremer explains. ‘But a CEO can’t order people to change their culture. Leaders must instead use their influence and interact and engage people. Staff can also initiate change, like a social movement. It doesn't need to be top-down.’

‘It depends on the person in front of you. You need to be flexible,’ Prof. Van Dierendonck confirms. ‘On one hand you want to give employees enough autonomy to do their own thing, but at the same time you need to give guidance when they ask for help. It’s a balancing act, giving freedom but also keeping everyone going in the same direction.’

Change circles

Bremer believes positive culture is best implemented through “change circles”: teams of around eight to 10 direct colleagues. ‘Organisations are not the neat pyramids that exist on paper. They are networks. People talk to one another. And together they can decide what is important,’ she explains.

‘By sitting together you can see how culture change works within your team. It translates from abstract values into specific behaviours that fit your workload. The circle is a safe space where everyone gets a say. You can look colleagues in the eye and see if they agree, or whether adjustments need to be made

Going back to normal

With networks, change can begin anywhere, regardless of someone’s position. At first it may only make a small difference within a team, but it can ripple throughout an organisation. ‘People must realise that they can and do make a difference,’ Bremer explains.

Nevertheless, she adds, you have to be patient: ‘Many clients I work with are in a hurry. They want to skip the change circles, or save money by having circles containing too many people. But that doesn’t work. In larger groups it’s easier to hide, and to go back to normal as soon as the meeting is over.’

Values-based organisation

And, as Prof. Van Dierendonck points out, there are other benefits to building a values-based organisation. ‘If people feel they are in the right place, they are willing to stay longer and you get less staff turnover,’ he says. ‘With the economy improving and the labour market becoming tighter, it is harder to find talented people, so staff retention is vital.’

Moreover, he adds, the element of stewardship is becoming more important in the wider context. ‘You take care of what is given to you as a responsibility, and you look at it from the long-term perspective. You see not only the impact of what you are doing in the short term, but also on the world you might leave your children.’

And Bremer also sees value in the wider benefits. ‘We spend so much time at work, it would be great if you can come home and feel positive there as well,’ she says. ‘Then you spread that positivity.’

Developing a positive culture where people and performance thrive by Marcella Bremer is published by Motivational Press.

Find out more about how to harness the power of purpose to benefit an organisation’s achievements at this year’s RSM Leadership Summit in Rotterdam on Friday 12 October.

This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2018 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

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