Whether you call it company culture, work environment, or organizational atmosphere, it doesn't just magically appear. It all starts as a reflection of the attitudes and characteristics of executives, managers, and really anyone in a leadership position. Their characteristics--good and bad--trickle down and are adopted by employees. And a company culture is born. So, if you want to develop a rich and rewarding company culture (or are wondering how to fix an existing negative one), embrace these four positive characteristics so they'll trickle down into your organization.

Integrity

You might think of integrity as simply being honest and fair (that's pretty textbook as far as definitions go). But most standard definitions include a second definition of "the state of being complete or whole." And I find the second piece more profound.

Why does being whole and complete matter so much? Well, as Rebekah Campbell so eloquently wrote, "...telling lies is the No. 1 reason entrepreneurs fail. Not because telling lies makes you a bad person but because the act of lying plucks you from the present, preventing you from facing what is really going on in your world. Every time you overreport a metric, underreport a cost, are less than honest with a client or a member of your team, you create a false reality and you start living in it." When you commit to being wholly and completely honest, you can operate in the whole and complete reality.

As it currently stands, many business leaders don't have a great reputation for integrity; only half of the general population trust business leaders and CEOs to tell the truth. And when employees don't expect to be told the truth, it's much easier to justify fudging their own numbers and statements. Establish a precedent of integrity now by being completely honest and facing reality head on, and you'll set that same expectation for employees. The payoff is a thriving culture based on trust where you can address real challenges with real solutions. Plus, it's liberating not to have to keep all your half-truths or bold-faced lies straight. If you commit to always telling the truth, it's easy to remember what you need to say to whom.  

Empathy

I've found that so much of successfully leading a company is about relationships. And to maintain those relationships, I have to think a lot about how my actions impact employees' lives and make employees feel. I do this not only because I care about my employees, but because I know that if they're treated with empathy and consideration, they'll be more likely to treat our customers and their coworkers the same way. If you want employees to be considerate and understanding of customer and coworker feelings, you need to demonstrate similar empathy toward those employees.

Having empathy toward employees often nudges leaders toward servant leadership--a management style where leaders do everything they can to help and serve employees. When you have empathy, you consider how employees are feeling and anticipate what they need, and when you are a servant leader, you get to work serving employees based on their feelings and needs. Not only will you benefit from employees adopting your servant leadership or empathetic leadership style, but you'll also benefit from improved customer service, increased job performance (by 6 percent) and higher employee retention (by 50 percent!).

And beyond those benefits, it's simply the right thing to do. Work is a much better place to be when everyone is treating everyone else humanely and empathetically. If you want a positive culture where employees treat customers and coworkers with care, try walking a mile in their shoes. (But make sure to give their shoes back. Stealing shoes isn't cool.)

Accountability

How do your leaders handle mistakes? Hide them? Blame someone else? Or have you established a culture where they can openly admit and learn from them? This is the key difference between an organization where employees safely embrace or avoid accountability. If leaders want employees to be comfortable with accountability, they need to openly hold themselves and others accountable--in the right way.

Hold yourself accountable by openly admitting when you're wrong. At BambooHR, we understand that mistakes happen and can be learning opportunities. If a big mistake is made, employees hold themselves accountable by sending an "Oops Email" to the team detailing what went wrong and what was learned. The employee isn't criticized (coworkers often chime in with support and stories of their own mistakes), and everyone learns that accountability is revered, not reviled.

Hold others accountable and expect, especially as a leader, that employees will also hold you accountable. So, for example, employees hold me accountable to tell them if they have leftover lunch stuck in their teeth, and they're all accountable for letting me know when I do. (I jokingly implemented this accountability rule after attending a meeting with broccoli in my teeth.) And a more-professional smile isn't the only accountability benefit. Studies show holding people accountable improves performance, feelings of competency, creativity, and satisfaction.

Accountability can be uncomfortable because work hasn't traditionally been a safe place to make mistakes. When you hold yourself and others responsible, you set an example and create a culture where employees feel safe owning and learning from their own mistakes.

Humility

Most of us have dealt with the boss, or coworker, who knows everything (or thinks they do, anyway). And it's not simply that they don't listen to feedback. The issue is when they refuse to see the truth, accept it, and change when needed--even when it's hard. I'm grateful to have learned from those know-it-all bosses and coworkers. Thanks to them, I understand that I don't know everything and, instead, surround myself with incredibly intelligent people who will tell me when I'm wrong, and we both expect that honesty to happen without holding back. We're not perfect at it, but we do always try to get better because in order to succeed, leaders and teams need to learn from each other continually.

Encourage employees to challenge your ideas. (I'm always grateful when an employee stops me from pursuing a terrible idea.) Even consider privately inviting an employee to give you public feedback, just so others see that it's acceptable and expected. When employees see that you're open to learning from them, they'll be more likely to learn from others, too.

Lazlo Bock, Google's SVP of People Operations, said it well: "Your end goal is what can we do together to problem-solve. Without humility, you are unable to learn." Humility allows everyone on your team to clear pride and concerns of self-preservation from their mind and, instead, focus on the best outcome for customers, the company, and themselves. (Not to mention the higher commitment and performance humble leaders get from employees.)

 

"There are no moral shortcuts in the game of business or life," Jon Huntsman, Sr. wrote in his book "Winners Never Cheat." "There are, basically, three kinds of people, the unsuccessful, the temporarily successful, and those who become and remain successful. The difference is character." I believe it. To succeed--and for other leaders, employees, and, ultimately the organization as a whole to succeed--you can't take any moral shortcuts. If you and other leaders in your company embrace characteristics of integrity, empathy, accountability, and humility, most employees will follow suit, and you'll end up with a rich and rewarding company culture.

 

Published on: May 31, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.