Natural Foods Merchandiser

Create a positive culture in the workplace

Every workplace has its own culture. One Oxford English Dictionary definition of culture—?the practice of cultivating the soil?—implies that this culture is something you can consciously nurture. Another definition, ?a crop of artificially developed bacteria,? suggests that you might reap something pathological.

  • How would you describe your workplace culture? Dysfunctional or healthy?
  • Do people feed the rumor mill? Or do they go to the source and check out the facts before passing on information?
  • Is change automatically resisted as negative? Or do people get excited about change and embrace it?
  • Do employees refuse to help out in other departments? Or do they look at the needs of the whole store?
  • Are conflicts and disagreements avoided or suppressed? Or do they get openly expressed and resolved?
  • Do problems tend to get framed in terms of who is to blame? Or when problems arise, do people propose solutions?
  • Do staff feel entitled to pay increases and benefits regardless of how the business is doing? Or do they see their compensation as connected to the success of the business?

The impact of a bad workplace culture can go beyond mere unpleasantness to high turnover, low productivity or flat sales. Even when a business is doing well financially, the stress caused by so much negativity can keep it from achieving its full potential.

Experts in organizational development say that transforming a group?s culture requires a broad approach. Focusing on one element alone will not bring about fundamental change. For example, changing the basis of pay raises from seniority to individual performance (the reward system) won?t uproot an ?entitlement mentality? unless you also clarify performance expectations, restructure the evaluation system and train supervisors.

Each of these elements can be tools for cultivating a positive workplace.

Helping customers take control of their own health. Promoting organic agriculture. Supporting local producers. Missions like these draw many employees to work in our industry. But it?s not enough to have a mission statement on paper. People laboring day-in, day-out at the cash register and the bulk bins need reminders of how their work contributes to the greater purpose. Some natural foods stores keep the mission front and center with orientations for new workers, articles in the employee newsletter and in-store events featuring local producers.

Goals and measures
Goals describe the steps an organization will take to fulfill its mission, while measures show whether goals have been met. The workplace culture benefits when employees are informed about goals, get progress reports, celebrate when goals are achieved and share in the reward. By the same token, the culture suffers when the organization appears to be drifting.

Goals can be developed specifically to improve workplace culture. For example, a food co-op in a university town with a high percentage of part-time staff found that those working fewer than 20 hours per week felt uninformed and alienated, and tended to leave sooner than full-timers. The management team set a goal of maintaining the same number of FTEs (full-time equivalents) with fewer employees, all cross-trained. Success was measured by the size of the work force, increases in the average wage, greater productivity and reduction in turnover.

Policies and procedures
To carry out goals, you need policies and procedures that guide supervisors and staff in day-to-day decisions. Perhaps even more important than the content of such policies is the way they are interpreted. Are lower-level staff empowered to interpret policies to promote customer satisfaction? Or are they expected to enforce policies inflexibly, while only managers have discretion to bend the rules to accommodate a customer?

Group norms
Norms are assumptions or expectations held by group members that govern what is considered appropriate behavior. Sometimes without your awareness, unspoken norms can work against the culture you want. For instance, do senior staff ?earn? the right to not work on weekends, leaving the store to be run by the least experienced employees at the times of greatest customer need? Is poor performance tolerated for old-timers but not newer staff? In a supposedly ?family-friendly? workplace, do all the managers work 50 to 60 hours a week?

Orientations can transmit culture by articulating the mission, goals, policies and norms of the organization. But if the orientation?s messages are contradicted by the employee?s actual experiences on the job, which version of reality do you think will prevail? Well-planned on-the-job training, with dedicated trainers freed up from daily tasks to focus on the trainee, promotes a different workplace culture than throwing a new employee out on the floor to sink or swim. Cross-training can be a major driver in transforming a factionalized workplace. Once employees have walked a mile in their coworkers? shoes, they are more likely to be supportive across department lines.

Performance evaluations
If an expectation is really important, it should show up as a criterion in the performance review. Feedback and goal-setting in evaluations are some of management?s potentially most effective tools to create and maintain a healthy workplace culture. For example, evaluations can assess directness of communication, using established channels to solve problems, or flexibility in helping out coworkers.

Organizational structure
Roles and responsibilities, lines of accountability, authority to make certain decisions—all these influence the culture. Who serves on the management team and what is that group?s purpose? Should buying be more centralized or dispersed? Should this department have an assistant manager? Could that small department run without a manager? Should there be a manager on duty in the store at all times?

Carolee Colter will expand on workplace culture at a ?Biz 101? workshop at Natural Products Expo West.
When: Sunday, March 20
Time: 10:15 a.m. ? 11:30 a.m.
Where: Room 204B, Anaheim Convention Center
Materials from the workshop will be available online after the show at
Reward system
Of all the elements affecting culture, this is probably the most powerful because people will continue to do what they get positive reinforcement for doing. Not all rewards are monetary, but the pay structure sends a strong message. Are pay increases based on individual performance? Team performance? Longevity? Does increased pay go hand-in-hand with increased responsibility? Is a bonus at the end of the calendar year seen as a ?Christmas bonus,? given out of the employer?s largesse? Or is it seen as profit-sharing earned by the staff?s hard work? Who gets promoted to department manager positions and on what criteria? Training itself can be an effective reward. Sending employees to trade shows, seminars and gatherings of peers from other stores shows what the company values.

In any workplace with more than two people, there will probably always be a rumor mill. The information management gives out and takes in, along with the communication channels themselves—meetings, newsletters, logbooks, e-mails—all set a tone. Keep in mind that at times of upheaval, such as an expansion or management change, it?s better to err on the side of too much communication than too little.

Celebrations show what you value. Are there occasions to spotlight staff achievements and hand out awards? When departments meet goals or make dramatic improvements, do the rest of the staff hear about it? It would be a shame if the only parties ever held at your store were for departing employees.

Woven together, all of the above elements make up organizational culture. By addressing as many as possible, leaders can, over time, transform their workplace cultures into happy, healthy, productive places to work.

Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group. She can be reached at 206.723.4040 or

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 30-31

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