When toxic workplace behaviour is exposed, such as currently in our Parliamentary workplace, it should be seen as a symptom of poor culture design rather than rogue individuals. Many workplaces are built on false assumptions, namely innate employee competitiveness and selfish motivations, which enable or promote toxic behaviour. Addressing poor workplace behaviour is a culture redesign challenge for leaders, rather than leaving it to the HR department.
Behaviour science shows that rather than being innately competitive, we are predisposed to prosocial behaviour and organisations can benefit from it. Elinor Ostrom received a Nobel prize in 2009 for demonstrating that people are predisposed to cooperation; they create rules and organisations based on it. ‘Prosocial’ behaviour is characterised by a concern for others’ rights, feelings and welfare. It is behaving in a manner which promotes the well-being of others. We all have social needs that we seek to have met in our workplaces. We value the same things – being respected, included, appreciated and feeling safe in our environment.
Examples of this predisposition are all around us. In Australia, we can see the prosocial behaviour of our beach lifeguards, our volunteer firefighters in the summer or our blood donation drives in the office. These prosocial behaviours and underlying selfless motivations are apparent in all the world’s varied cultures and peoples
We can also see evidence of this in the Parliamentary workplace scandal; the selfless and often self-harming actions of whistleblowers who speak out. These prosocial actions typically come with anticipated and significant personal costs to the whistleblowers.
So why do we see prosocial behaviour in some workplaces and not others?
Social scientists suggest that our workplace context can determine whether we engage in prosocial actions. Many not-for-profit organisations, such as Mozilla Firefox or Wikipedia, owe their success to individuals’ prosocial orientations, their desire to join organisations enabling them to express themselves. When asked, many public servants point to a prosocial motivation (e.g. ‘Creating a better society’) as their reason for joining the sector. On the flip side, HR professionals understand it is because of unmet social needs that many employees leave their position regardless of the job salary and perks.
By failing to respond to these innate social needs, a vicious circle emerges where employees feel cheated and are more likely to cheat the organisation in turn. Gallup research estimates that only ⅓ Australian employees are engaged at work due to not having their needs met beyond monetary compensation. This lack of engagement leads to conduct risk.
Innovative organisations, particularly newer ones, are already designing their corporate culture on cooperative principles. Organisations such as Zappos and Atlassian design culture to address employees’ social needs and deliberately promote inclusive workplaces. Global brands such as Novartis are now encouraging their leaders to hone their social skills to promote a unifying organisational purpose to employees. This shared purpose helps to harness social or ethical priorities and promotes a more cooperative orientation towards achieving the organisation’s goals. Managers must engage in honest communication with employees to address the ongoing ethical and social challenges of attaining these goals. Honesty from leaders promotes psychological safety, which helps build an inclusive workplace culture.
One of our most pressing human needs is to feel good about ourselves, and as social animals, we use workplace groups to support and cultivate positive self-concepts. Because people mostly conform to what significant others around them are doing, managers modelling prosocial behaviours enable respectful workplace cultures to emerge while appeals to group identity maintain shared standards.
How do I get started?
A more human-centric approach to culture design means inviting employees’ input and ideas on how best to design organisational systems that work for them and their views on how they can better support each other to foster a more inclusive culture. The healthiest cultures are co-designed.
In a low-trust interconnected world, demands for more workplace diversity, equity and inclusion will only accelerate. Recognising our prosocial natures and leveraging these to promote psychological safety is a strategy guaranteed to provide benefits for both the organisation and it’s members.
Let’s hope Parliamentarians are listening.
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