How people feel is an essential fuel for your mission. Human capital is a limited resource that requires continued investment and cultivation. If you care about your people, your community, your clients, and your stakeholder partners, you will do all you can to ensure that your community is healthy, harmonious, and productive.

Thoughtfully designing an environment that takes “what if feels like to be here” into account can transform your organization into one where workers share goals and values and pursue your organization’s mission with vigor and enthusiasm.

While it may be possible to function successfully for a time with only the operational supports, it is unlikely to be sustainable without mission supports:

  • Operational supports include budget, scheduling, accounting, protocols, procedures, compliance with policy, law and regulations, and the multiple systems that keep the organization or community operating from day-to-day.
  • Mission supports are related more specifically to “why we are here and what we intend to do.” They help build energy and inspiration behind the enterprise and are essential.

Environment impacts what it feels like to be at work, levels of commitment to the mission, and the degree of satisfaction in working toward fulfilling that mission. In other words, the work environment affects workers’ feelings and their levels of motivation, purpose, orientation, comfort, safety, and trust.

Three ways to shape a work environment
It is not enough to present rational arguments. We need to shape the path. Shaping the path means if we want to create change, we need to create the optimal conditions for that change to take place. We need to shape certain paths, structures, and behaviors in an organization. If we observe a culture which has these features, we see patterns of activity around designing and building. We would see:

  • Thoughtfully shaping its mission and values,
  • Responsibly shaping and re-shaping the way its people talk to one another, and
  • Carefully shaping the design elements of the workplace environment.

The key word here is intentional. When it comes to big picture and long-term sustainability, nothing is left to chance.

1.  Shaping the mission
All organizations have a purpose. Whatever the purpose of the organization, it cannot thrive without a clear mission, the overarching purpose that guides the activities of the organization. Shaping the mission goes far beyond shaping the written statement that encapsulates that mission. A mission statement is superficial if there is no muscle behind it. It alone cannot support your mission. To serve its purpose, the mission must be supported by consistent mission-based behaviors by the leadership and workers.

Mission-based behaviors are actions that are in direct alignment with the mission itself. To support the mission, leaders need to take three critical steps:

  • Recruit the right people
  • Promoting an ethical culture, and
  • Leading by example.

Leaders can and should promote and model explicit values that support the mission. These values can be acted upon, pointed to, repeated, and even talked about on a regular basis at meetings. But if they aren’t made explicit and openly acknowledged, there can be little expectation of mission-alignment among workers.

2.  Shaping the language
Most organizations publicly profess values that relate to treating human beings with dignity. But living up to those values is no easy task, and research has shown that organizations frequently fail in doing so. The main reason for this failure is the lack of understanding around the power of language and the reluctance to establish clear conversational norms that can best facilitate productive conversations throughout the organization.

How a community talks is a useful barometer for determining the level of commitment an organization has to its mission and stated values. Anywhere in the organization, conversations can be observed, from the proverbial water cooler to a staff meeting on issues vital to the organization’s continued existence. A common problem in organizations is the quality of those conversations. Without the careful stewardship of your organization’s language norms, the language and politics will take their own path, a scenario which can easily lead to unproductive conflicts. These conflicts can undermine the collaboration and trust necessary for working toward organizational goals.

How a community talks is a useful barometer for determining the level of commitment an organization has to its mission and stated values.

For example, inquiring into the positions of a colleague is different than ruthlessly interrogating to find fault. The small act of pointing out this distinction like can be helpful because it involves the practice of “naming.” Once an unproductive pattern is named out in the open, it is made transparent and neutralized or at least robbed of some of its power.

The following unproductive behaviors need to be named, recognized, prevented, and eliminated in a healthy work environment:

  • Gossip, rumor, and innuendo
  • Intentional discrediting of a colleague to gain the upper hand
  • Refusal to acknowledge an opposing view while advancing your own
  • Agendas and arguments made without reference to the organization’s mission
  • Personal attacks in place of disagreement with the content of an opposing view

Leaders may elect to dismiss workers who have continuously used these tactics in support of the organization’s mission and bottom line.

3.  Shaping the space
The physical spaces in which we work, learn, and relate have more of an impact on relationships and productivity than we may realize. On both obvious and subtle levels, the physical spaces we inhabit always communicate something. So we need to be intentional in designing these space to communicate in accordance with the mission.

Physical space includes:

  • Movement, color, noise, lighting, and time
  • Tone of voice, facial expressions, and posture
  • Arrangements of chairs, desks, tables, and clocks
  • Structure and layout of buildings

You can strategically design physical spaces to enhance comfort, reinforce positive language norms and mission goals, and reduce power differentials between managers and subordinates (or between those with more or less informal authority), which can build more trust and mutual accountability.

The key is to design with intentionality and awareness of the following factors:

  • Message factors. What messages are we sending about who we are as a community? The most important messages are the mission statement, rules, and policies, which can be widely posted throughout the buildings. When an organization creates its mission statement, defines its rules and policies, and posts them throughout the building, it gives the workers a point of reference and a sense of identity. Message postings can help orient the community. While government mandates that workplaces post anti-harassment policies (which currently afford protection to groups in such protected statuses as race, age, and gender), leaders should also post anti-bullying policies. In recent years, research has shown that more than a third of American workers have experienced harassment, bullying, intimidation, targeting, and malicious gossip. An additional third of American workers have witnessed bullying. If such behaviors go unchecked, your organization can succumb to a “culture of fear” and may experience increased absenteeism, increased health problems, and possibly retributive violence from targets. A new movement has arisen over the past few decades that seek to create legal protections for American workers from being targeted by workplace bullies. It is called the Healthy Workplace Bill and has been introduced in more than 30 state legislatures. If passed into law, this bill would create a legal claim for targets, regardless of protected status. In the absence of such a law in your state, it stay on message that violence in all its forms, including intentional, psychological violence, will not be tolerated. Finally, if your organization has created your own conversational norms (or adopted ours), it would be helpful to post them in key areas so that everyone understands expectations.
  • Power factors. Who has the most power in this situation? In every organization, there are power dynamics, even in organizations that are strictly democratic and consensus-based in their decision-making. So it’s always good to ask ourselves “what are the power dynamics between us and how can we reduce the anxiety caused by that differential?” There are some instances where we can experiment with the space or with the selection of a different space. For instance, a manager might ask to meet a worker in her own office to discuss her evaluation rather than in the manager’s office to help focus the discussion on the substance of the evaluation with reduced anxiety.
  • Comfort factors. What does it feel like to be in this space? We can work with lighting, arrangements of chairs, and other elements of the physical space until it “feels good to be here.” These changes might require a collaborative effort of those who participating in the space.

Designing the environment is a main support for bringing empathy, trust, harmony, productivity, and the successful attainment of an organization’s mission and goals. Design involves the commitment to shaping the mission, shaping the language, and shaping the space and has a significant impact on the environment. In such a space, we open the way for creativity, innovation, and respect for the valuable resources others bring to the table. We create the conditions in which a more cooperative spirit might emerge.

This post is part 2 in a three-part series about creating a workplace that is more likely to yield the best results for your mission. Step 1 is “How to build a culture of architects.” Step 3 is “How to promote genuine cooperation.”

The key to successful organizations is the intentional creation of structures and norms that bring out the best in people – their highest capacity for empathy and appreciation for others’ experiences and perspectives. Any style of leadership that excludes this capacity will be ineffective at best and destructive at worst. Support Your Mission puts forth the Three Supports model for guiding leaders toward creating a workplace that is more likely to yield the best results for their missions. “If you want your project, organization, community, or group endeavor to succeed, you have to believe in and care about people. In every way possible, you have to create opportunities to build a sense of agency in those you are working with (or who are working for you),” says the website. Simply put: empathy for workers impacts the bottom line. The goal is to organize ideas and patterns in a way that is easy for others to recognize. Patterns must be repeated enough to be reliable and predictable in determining the way forward.


About the Author Steven James Lawrence

Steven James Lawrence is an educator, organizational consultant, and writer who divides his time between the North Shore and Boston, Massachusetts. Much of Lawrence's training in professional communication, organizational psychology, and workplace health was received at the University of Massachusetts, Boston as part of the Masters Degree program, Learning, Teaching and Educational Transformation.

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