Office culture can make or break a person. It can take a committed employee and turn them into a bitter shriveled person or it can uplift a person and spur on their desire to contribute and participate. And while it is up to each of us to figure out our own response to a situation, the context – or social field – of the situation can help or hinder. I recently talked to a young woman fresh out of college at her first job at a place she is passionate about bemoaning the office culture. It is classic cubicle land complete with total silence, people eating at their desks and a total lack of a sense of community. She has taken it upon herself to be the person who shakes up the culture by spreading some sparkle around and she is trying to figure out a way to do it that is gentle, welcoming, open, friendly and fun. She is determined to not become bitter and shriveled but rather to work on two fronts: modifying her own response to the soul-numbing corporate culture as well as trying to bring change to the culture at her office.

That is a daunting challenge and should never rest on the shoulders of one person! But too often, as people are absorbed into an office, they “sink” to the level of the operating culture rather than even try to bring change. So I give her a lot of credit for even trying!

The thing is, these kinds of stories are all too common and are part of the reason why there is such high turnover and lack of engagement of employees. We are asked to check our personalities at the door and spent the next eight to ten hours in an artificial world. In many offices, the level of conversation exists at the most superficial – people are afraid to share deeply either for fear of not being professional, or for being inappropriate or just because they are not encouraged to share from the heart. This lack of communication hinders the development of trust and trust is key to successful work environment.

In the Harvard Business Review Paul Zak wrote: “In my research I’ve found that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.”

And you can’t trust people if you don’t talk to them. True employee engagement and trust building does not come from artificial team building activities but by creating an authentic work environment that is built on people knowing each other, as well as knowing how they are dependent on each other to complete job goals.

A friend of mine joined a startup as PR and marketing person. He was dependent on others for stories from the field and to develop the connection between the mission and the actual function of the business. The interdependent lines were never clearly delineated and when he reached out to those who held the key pieces of information that would allow him to fulfill his job goals, he was not given the information or support that he needed. This company had the informal, casual, fun culture of so many start ups yet meaningful trust and relationships of interdependence had not been developed.

Trust lives and works on many fronts and is something that is tangible and actionable. Stephen Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust outlines the levels at which trust can be developed. A good starting place of building trust is moving into meaningful conversations.

A few simple starting places are people getting up from their desks and having lunch together or having a weekly gathering of either the  whole agency or by team or department that encourages both professional and personal sharing. Another option is to introduce peer sharing groups where people from across the organization form groups where there is sharing about work (and personal life) so that people who do not normally work together benefit from additional perspective. There are many fabulous “protocols” or processes to initiate and are really limited only by your imagination. The most important aspect is that the development of relationships be authentic and not forced.

Integrating these small steps encourages people to bring their whole selves to work and to begin developing meaningful culture at work. That way, when someone new and enthusiastic joins the team, she or he will not be single-handedly responsible for bringing the sparkle!

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