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5 Things That Separate the Best Workplace Cultures From The Rest

Open and honest communication is a cornerstone of a healthy workplace. But there's more.

By Gustavo Razzetti

March 30, 2023

Our new study sheds light on a question that's been troubling us for years: What’s the best culture people have experienced? (And the worst)

Workplace culture precedes business results. People often talk about culture as something abstract, almost invisible. However, its impact on the work is anything but invisible. Culture can get the best or worst out of people.

A positive workplace culture fosters creativity, innovation, and productivity, while a negative one leads to low morale, high turnover, and poor performance.

We often talk about good and bad cultures, but what separates the best from the worst?

Since I started Fearless Culture, a culture design consultancy, I’ve been obsessed with answering this question not in academic but in practical terms – as you might have noticed in my articles and books.

To answer this from people’s perspective, we analyzed the responses of over 5,000 participants across various levels and multiple countries. The results are clear: five key characteristics separate the best and worst cultures. Read to find out more.

Positive Cultures Precede Great Results

Culture is directly connected to work. However, people often miss this connection. That’s why we started asking people to reflect on the impact culture has on their work. At the beginning of our workshop or culture mapping sessions, we ask people a simple question: What’s the best and worst culture you’ve experienced? Why?

We often divide people into duos to reflect in a more intimate setting, then debrief with all participants. For the past three years, we’ve collected answers from 5,285 global professionals across various levels and company sizes. The results are anything but vague.

For starters, the value that people place on communication and meaningful work surprised us all. Not because we didn't anticipate it, but because of how loud and clear it is.

What separates the "best" workplace cultures from the "worst" is providing an open, safe, and experimental environment. In the worst workplace cultures, employees are afraid to speak up or make mistakes – they feel like they're walking on eggshells. This can lead to a high turnover rate, low productivity, and a negative impact on the company's bottom line.

One key factor contributing to a negative workplace culture is poor communication. When companies lack transparency, employees feel isolated, unsupported, and undervalued. This can lead to distrust and a disconnection from the company's goals.

Another factor that separates the best workplace cultures from the worst is the employees' level of autonomy and accountability. In the worst cultures, employees feel micromanaged and under scrutiny. On the other hand, in the best cultures, employees are trusted to take ownership of their work and be accountable for their results.

Most importantly, in the worst cultures, leaders don’t abide by the rules. They demand one thing from people but don’t hold themselves to the same standard – their words don’t match their own actions.

Best Culture Trait #1: Open & Ongoing Communication

Most respondents to our culture survey (89%) agree that open and ongoing communication is the most important trait of the best company cultures.

Open and honest communication is a cornerstone of a healthy workplace.

When communication is open and honest, employees feel valued and respected and are more likely to contribute ideas. Setting clear expectations helps them know what they need to do. Over-communicating is better than under-communicating, especially in a hybrid workplace.

According to a survey by SHRM, companies with high levels of communication between management and employees had 50% lower turnover rates. Research by Zippia shows that 86% of people blame poor communication for company failures, while effective communication increases productivity by up to 25%.

Transparency is not about sharing everything but about not hiding critical information, especially bad news.

Buffer has a culture of radical transparency. The company shares everything from salaries to board meeting notes with employees and encourages open and honest communication across all levels of the organization. The social media management platform views transparency as a lifestyle of authenticity and honesty.

Recommendations for your organization:

  • Create an honest dialogue: Host multiple live and asynchronous events and encourage people to ask questions and share their concerns.
  • Share issues in the open: When people are aware of critical matters, they’re more willing to step up and provide ideas, especially during difficult times.
  • Share the why, not just the what: As respondents told us, “we are not just looking to understand facts but the reason why leaders are making x,y,z decision.”

Best Culture Trait #2: Great, Meaningful Work

76% of respondents truly believe that the ability to do great work separates the best cultures from the worst.

Employees want to feel like they are making a difference and contributing to something bigger than themselves. Working on projects that are challenging, impactful, and aligned with their purpose increases job satisfaction.

A study by Harvard Business Review shows that employees who find their work meaningful are 2.3 times more likely to be engaged in their work. Highly fulfilled employees plan on staying at their organizations for three years longer than unfulfilled employees.

The opportunity to do great, meaningful work is the new engagement.

There is a positive relationship between subjective well-being and productivity. People who are happy at work have a better attitude and are more collaborative and productive. Nothing makes people happier than doing work that they love.

Patagonia has a culture of doing meaningful work. The outdoor clothing company is on a mission to "build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis," encouraging employees to be environmental activists.

Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. You don’t need to be Patagonia to provide people with the opportunity to do meaningful work. Even the most mundane jobs can have meaning. Psychologists were surprised to discover that hospital janitors believe their job goes beyond mopping floors: it’s about improving the quality of patient care.

Purpose and mastery go hand in hand. That’s something the best cultures have in common. They provide an environment where people can learn and become better at what they do, allowing them to do their best work.

Recommendations for your organization:

  • Align work with purpose: Ensure employees understand how their work creates a positive impact.
  • Encourage innovation: Provide opportunities for employees to experiment, take risks, and find fulfilling career paths.
  • Offer growth and development: Provide opportunities for employees to learn new skills, take on new challenges, or donate time to do community work.

Best Culture Trait #3: Belonging to a Community

71% of respondents to our survey believe that having a sense of community and belonging is one of the three key traits of the best company cultures.

Belonging is a fundamental part of being human; we are social animals who need to be connected to others to thrive. Connection makes us feel safe, trusting, and collaborative. It has been in our DNA since ancient times, when being part of a group was literally the difference between life and death.

Strong personal connections build healthy teams. Unfortunately, leaders underestimate the power of belonging. A sense of belonging is linked to a 56% increase in job performance, better business results, and a healthier workplace culture.

As respondents told us, who we work with matters more than the company we work for. They want to work with great people – both professionally and personally. This is particularly evident in the best cultures I’ve analyzed. Everyone holds a strong admiration and respect for, as well as a sense of camaraderie with, their coworkers.

Belonging is about having solid and meaningful connections with our colleagues.

A Deloitte report shows that nearly three quarters (73%) of respondents said fostering a sense of belonging was vital for company success, with 93% agreeing that it drives organizational performance. According to the 2023 Global Culture Report, 72% of employees say feeling part of a community at work is crucial.

Zappos has a strong sense of community and belonging among its employees. They have a "culture book" that is created annually by employees, which documents the company's values and culture. The online shoe and clothing retailer encourages employees to participate both in community and company-wide events that shape the Zapponian ethos.

Belonging to a team makes us feel safe and welcome. We don’t just feel treated fairly, respected, and accepted but also part of a community.

Recommendations for your organization:

  • Connect personally: The more team members get to know their colleagues, the more they will trust each other.
  • Design team rituals: Tangible acts done frequently help bring culture to life. Team rituals carry meaning and create a shared experience among team members.
  • Codify team washing instructions: Understand how people want to be treated, respect their expectations, and find common ground.

Best Culture Trait #4: Ownership: High Alignment/ High Autonomy

Autonomy is the biggest reward you can give your team.

Research shows that 79% percent of people have been victims of micromanagement. Controlling leaders and rigid structures are typical of the worst cultures, not the best ones.

Autonomy and accountability go hand in hand in creating a positive workplace culture. Employees feel empowered and motivated when they are free to make decisions and take ownership of their work. However, with autonomy comes responsibility and accountability.

Freedom and autonomy beget ownership.

High autonomy requires high alignment. When people own their work, they’re more inclined to go the extra mile, be curious, and look to continually improve. According to a study by Gallup, employees who have autonomy over their work are 43% more likely to be highly engaged at work.

Any imbalance across the two dimensions ultimately produces some degree of failure at scale. Your company has to establish a clear purpose and strategy that provides context for people. Align people with what they need to achieve and give them autonomy to define how to get there.

Atlassian has a culture of autonomy and accountability. The software development company allows employees to work on projects that interest them. They use a system called "ship it" to encourage employees to take ownership of their work and deliver results.

Recommendations for your organization:

  • Provide clear expectations: Align team members with the impact they want to achieve together. A shared purpose drives effective collaboration, even if team members work independently.
  • Promote ownership: Inspire people to go above and beyond – make them feel in charge. Create a culture where everyone takes good care of their work and responsibilities.
  • Offer flexibility: Allow employees to work in ways that suit their individual needs and preferences as long as they meet their goals and deadlines.

Best Culture Trait #5: Encouraging & Respecting Diverse Perspectives

Diversity is the secret sauce of innovative organizations – 52% of respondents believe it separates the best cultures from the worst.

A workplace culture that values diverse perspectives and encourages inclusivity is essential for creating a positive work environment. When employees feel valued and respected for who they are, they are more likely to contribute with original ideas.

Diversity pays high dividends. Research by McKinsey shows that companies with gender diversity outperform by 21% and those with ethnic and cultural diversity outperform by 33%. However, most company efforts have stalled. Almost 6 in 10 employees believe their organizations can do much more to increase diversity.

Companies have put too much emphasis on diversity quotas and not so much on the benefits of diversity. Promoting diverse thought and open-mindedness sparks interest instead of division.

Adding women to the c-suite changes how a company thinks. They’re more likely to challenge the status quo and listen to divergent viewpoints. Firms with more women in senior positions are more profitable, socially responsible, and open to change.

Since Spotify introduced its "Work from Anywhere" policy in February 2021, it has seen rapid and remarkable improvements.

This new policy not only encouraged employees to decide how often they work from the office but also accelerated diversity – and innovation. Spotify expanded its talent pool, increasing its African-American and Hispanic employee base from 12.7% to 18% between 2019 and 2021. The number of women in executive positions also increased from 25% to 42% in the same timeframe.

The best company cultures don’t just welcome diverse perspectives; they encourage them.

Recommendations for your organization:

  • Make diverse thought a must: Lenovo believes that innovation requires diversity of perspectives. The company doesn’t invest in new projects or products that don’t have diverse teams running them.
  • Prioritize potential over current skills: Atlassian is helping more people get into tech by teaching women and those over 40 how to code.
  • Make it safe to challenge each other: Pixar practices candid feedback by encouraging people to criticize ideas, not people. Everyone’s open to all feedback regardless of from whom it comes.
  • Provide flexible work options: Location and schedule flexibility makes it easier to hire diverse talent and has proven to dramatically accelerate equity and inclusion.

Recapping: What Separates Best Cultures From the Worst

To create a positive workplace culture, your company should build strong relationships between employees, foster open communication, provide opportunities to do meaningful work, and build a sense of community.

Doing so can create a culture where employees feel valued, engaged, and motivated to do their best work.

It's important to note that creating a positive workplace culture is an ongoing process that requires continuous effort and attention. That’s the only thing the best and worst cultures have in common.

Schedule a free consultation call to learn more about what separates the best companies from the worst – and how to improve your culturePsychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in

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