How Workplace Culture Affects Workplace Performance


Despite the technological wizardry we have in our workplaces, humans are still the most important components. Yes, humans, those complex, unpredictable, sometimes irrational but predominantly wonderful beings who are responsible for the success or failure of an organisation. If the humans behave in a manner that is beneficial to the organisation, then the organisation prospers. The converse is also true.

     Human behaviour is a result of the set of beliefs held by each human. It is convenient to think of this set of beliefs and their resultant behaviour as culture. To improve the culture relevant to a workplace, you must address the beliefs held by that workplace. (The term “workplace” applies to any collection of humans doing the same work, regardless of whether they are in the same office or working remotely.) Culture should not be thought of as some happy-clappy, feelgood thing, but something that affects performance within the workplace. If you have ever visited a software shop where they turn out great products, you will have noticed the enthusiasm of the people for their work. You will also have noticed that these skilled people are given a working atmosphere that is conducive to their work. They feel safe to argue if they think they have a better answer; they are valued by their organisation, they are given an appropriate amount of time to do their tasks This is workplace culture.

     For the last two years, we, along with our partners in The Atlantic Systems Guild, have been writing a book on workplace culture. It is not the intention of this article to sell you a book (of course we would be delighted if you buy it) but to demonstrate some findings from our work.

How Workplace Culture Affects Workplace Performance

To have a useful view of culture, we identified six drivers of workplace culture. It is worth having a quick look at these drivers, because even a superficial glance will show you areas that you might work on to improve your own workplace culture, and thereby performance of the workplace.

The Perceived Value of People

The first of these drivers is the organisation’s perceived value of its people and teams. Are people seen as the organisation’s prime resource and treated as such? For example, when someone leaves, is their replacement the person who will work for the lowest salary? Or does the organisation put in the effort to find the most viable person, and involve the new worker’s peers in the selection process? Are people given appropriate space to work in, and have access to amenities commensurate with best practices for the industry? People who feel valued almost always respond by performing at a higher level. Additionally, organisations that place a high value on their talent are able to attract more skilful, and thus better performing workers.

The Perceived Nature of Time

The second driver is the organisation’s perception of the value of time. Of course, “time is money”, but some organisations are better at allocating and apportioning their time so that they receive the maximum value from it. People in workplaces where time is wisely managed know that their time is valued and important, and so respond positively to their work.

     For example, there are some organisations where deadlines are never met, and nobody seems to care about it. We experienced one such case; people were disillusioned about the importance of their work. In this workplace there was simply no urgency – it didn’t matter when you finished your project or how efficiently you carried out your process. We are not advocating that time be used as a weapon and impossibly small time-boxes set in the mistaken belief that it will make people work harder. That also destroys the culture. The culture is best in those organisations where time is used wisely, enough time allocated to ensure that the work is done correctly, and people are aware of the risk that allowing too much time invites disruption from changes to the business environment.

Safety and Security

Driver number three is about safety and security. Fairly obviously people find it very hard to perform at their best if they feel there is the potential for them to be bullied or demeaned.

     Safety is more than the fear of being bullied or harassed. Safety means that people feel confident that, within reason they can take on some risk. They know that some failure is tolerated as the price of finding better, more innovative solutions. Safety also means that people in the workplace trust each other. This is not just trust that a fellow worker will not steal your lunch from the refrigerator (although there’s that too) but trust that people will do what they say, that they can be trusted to think for themselves, trust that other people’s efforts are all directed towards doing their jobs and not manoeuvring for political advancement.

     Safety includes being trusted. For example, do managers trust their remote workers to get on with their work without constant monitoring and micromanaging? There are recent stories about organisations installing spyware on remote workers’ computers to check that the employee spends the entire workday at their machine, with barely enough time for meal or bathroom breaks. Can you imagine a culture where your boss has installed a robotic tracker to monitor your every moment at work? Would that kind of culture encourage you to put in your most productive behaviour, or would you spend much of the time working on ways to fool the monitor?

Navigation by Grownups

The fourth driver is slightly unusual; we call it navigation by grownups. When grownups are setting the direction and the agenda, the rest of the people have a clear understanding of where the organisation is headed and what it wants to achieve in the medium-long term. They recognise their part in achieving the organisational objectives and know how their output contributes to the organisations results. Simply put, people working with a clear purpose do better work.

     Navigation by grownups means that schedules are realistic and not delusional fantasies. It also means that people are not being governed by uncontrollable events. The schedules are realistic enough so that when mishaps occur, they have been allowed for. Additionally, when the culture is grownup, the leaders conduct relentless and ruthless prioritization of the work so that people are not constantly firefighting. Good culture demands working mostly on important things, and only occasionally on those that are merely urgent.

The Bond of Collective Confidence

The fifth driver is collective confidence. When an organisation, and particularly a team, are collectively confident, they take on more challenging and thus more rewarding projects. The collectively confident team is not disconcerted by apparent obstacles, but team members believe that together they can overcome almost any impediment and achieve great things.

     I have visited organisations where this kind of collective confidence exists. The people are happy – they know, they are certain, that when they work together, anything is possible. One team I sat with for several days were tasked with a seemingly insoluble problem. At no stage did they give up, at no stage did anyone say it was too difficult. They kept plugging away and eventually, they not only found the solution, but they also found that the problem they set out to solve was the wrong problem. By reworking the problem, they had a solution that was far more beneficial than the one they set out to find.

The Perceived Value of Excellence and Beneficence

The sixth and last driver is the organisation’s perception of excellence and beneficence. This is when an organisation reaches its cultural summit and understands that it has become as good an organisation as it can be, and that it exists for more than just making a profit. Excellent and beneficent organisations are not only terrific places to work, but also some of their time and resources (including people) are directed to activities that are of benefit to the environment and the wider community.

     For example, IBM has a program called On Demand Community. This program helps employees and retirees find volunteer activities that match their skills and expertise. Since the program’s inception, volunteers have logged up over 20 million service hours.

     Zappos is an online clothing and shoe merchant. Zappos customers are loyal, they think the goods they buy there are pretty good. They are also encouraged to give their used — and often new — clothing and shoes to charity. Zappos pitches in by paying for the UPS delivery of the goods to the appropriate place, even when that place is overseas.


     This has been a very brief explanation of the culture drivers. Our intention is to give you an indication of areas where you can start to improve your own workplace culture. Improving culture is of course difficult, but it can be done — it has been done. A good workplace culture is valuable to an organisation: not only are the people happier and more satisfied with their work, resulting in an increase in performance, but it also attracts better talent. This is self-reinforcing — better talent contributes to better culture and better performance.

     So, what can you do to improve your workplace culture? A possible way to start is with the notion that culture is usually local. It is impossible to change the entire organisation unless you’re the CEO, and even then, it’s hard. But it is not so hard to change local culture. Your team is a good place to start.

     We said that the first driver is about the value of people. Take the people in your workgroup and have lunch together. Every day. Talk to each other and talk about your work. We know you have a daily stand-up, but that is about progress and status of the work, it is not about the value of the work and how one person might be doing something that others do not understand. You can also talk about other things, there’s plenty to talk about. The intention of these sessions is to bring the people together and for them to understand the value of each other. It also makes a group more cohesive, and thus more likely to be forgiving, and so improve the behaviour towards each other.

     A local group can also begin to look at how their time is allocated. For example, is time being used as a weapon? Are there unnecessarily short deadlines, or too little time allowed for tasks? These are usually applied in the mistaken belief that it will make people work harder. If so, the group should confront their boss and request reasonable and achievable time allocations. The group should also examine whether unnecessary time is allocated to any project activities. The intention is that the group come to recognise time as a commodity that must always be wisely allocated.

     Safety — the third driver of culture — is improved when the group becomes cohesive. If any bullying was going on, it will be quickly stamped out by group disapproval. A tight-knit group will always develop a supportive culture.

     There is a lot more to improving workplace culture, but regularly (preferably every day) eating lunch communally, or holding a communal Zoom session, is a pretty good start.

     You can think of workplace culture as the “final frontier”. We have improved the law regarding employment, installed tools and techniques to help our people do their work, provided better physical spaces to work in, so now it is time to think of how the culture of the workplace impacts people and their work.

     We want everyone to be able to say of their workplace that they are “happy to work here”.
     — James Robertson and Suzanne Robertson, the Atlantic Systems Guild.

Happy to Work Here - Understanding and improving the culture at work by Steve McMenamin, Tom DeMarco, Tim Lister, Peter Hruschka, James Robertson, Suzanne Robertson is available at Amazon.

Suzanne Robertson and James Robertson

Authors: James & Suzanne Robertson, Atlantic Systems Guild

Suzanne Robertson and James Robertson are principals and founders of The Atlantic Systems Guild and joint originators of the Volere requirements process, template, checklists and techniques

You can contact the authors at:

[email protected]

[email protected]

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hauser posted on Thursday, September 23, 2021 5:19 AM
having team lunch together everyday would really be a bit of an overkill, haha.
LeslieArend posted on Wednesday, December 29, 2021 4:20 AM
I've worked in two different companies, where the relationships between coworkers were totally different. And of course, when you have good relationships, friendly environment, the work you do is better, more quality, and you feel yourself much better
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