Are You Harming Your Employees, Or Helping Them?

Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture for Culture Partners
Culture has a big impact on employee mental health—and the success of your organization. Here’s how to get it right.

Some workplace cultures cause great mental harm to employees, while others help employees—and thus organizations—thrive.

That’s the position of Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture for Culture Partners, a consultant firm based in Temecula, California, and she has plenty of ideas about how HR leaders can foster healthy cultures to bring out the best in their employees.

For 15-plus years, Kriegel has been guiding global, national, Fortune 100 and other organizations across finance, technology, real estate and healthcare industries on the path to creating intentional cultures that accelerate performance. She made it her personal mission to “quantify culture,” which led to the development of the Culture Equation—a tested model where strategy combines with culture to deliver consistent results.

Kriegel spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about defining culture, the importance of trust and when engagement can come from disengagement.

What is the proper way to define culture and how that can impact employees?

It’s a series of experiences and behaviors, scaled from the C-Suite to the front lines of an organization, that help a company grow, help it innovate and help it stand out from the crowd. The “experiences” and “behaviors” parts are crucial, because different experiences and behavior happen within an organization 500-plus times a day and can impact the mental health of employees.

What elements of a company’s culture can truly benefit employee mental health?

How you perceive the culture around you has huge repercussions on your mental health. Is it a culture where overwork is a badge of honor? Is it a culture of micromanagement? Is it a culture where prioritizing a school play or Little League game seems to sign you up for the next round of layoffs?

Those cultures will obviously create negative mental health externalities. People are being led by fear, instead of being led by love. It may sound off to speak of “leading by love,” but if you’re uncomfortable with that word, think about it differently: lead from a place of flexibility and autonomy.

These are adults. You hired them, and it was probably a long process. Trust them to do the work. Believe in them and give them leeway. If they subsequently aren’t doing the work, then it’s time for course correction. But if they are, let them work in the ways that benefit their overall life the most. That engenders loyalty and gets the best out of people—not cultures of fear and surveillance, which are the ones that create the biggest mental health challenges.

There’s a study out of Wisconsin with 1,957 high school graduates who were tracked long-term. Decades later, the ones who existed in command-and-control workplaces were living 13 years less on average, so there’s a correlative element here that these negative cultures not only cause mental harm, they might be killing people prematurely.

How often should you revisit culture? How static or dynamic is it? What’s the proper timeline for a new approach?

Culture is a fluid concept and it’s perceived differently almost every day by some people. In terms of bringing together employees and executives to discuss the “what” of culture, at least once per year is recommended. Quarterly is too often and can feel like an intrusion on “real work.” Every three to five years is too far apart. An annual discussion, possibly tied to some bonding event like a Field Day or the old standby of zip lines and trust falls, can work.

What are the core principles for increasing engagement and retention, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Resignation?

It’s about leading with love, creating autonomy, prioritizing flexibility and treating people like adults. The formula is simple, but the execution is hard for many people because of how we’ve come to consider the role of work in our lives.

Engagement in many ways paradoxically comes from disengagement—giving people a chance to see that play, go to that Little League game, go to that recital, get dinner with their partner without the email pings, etc. The disengagement creates trust and loyalty, which then boosts a culture of engagement.

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