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How Workplace Culture Can Drive Competitive Advantage in Business

Written by Jeff Lindeman, VP, Chief People, Culture & Capability Officer at WD-40 and CultureCon 2024 speaker

In contemporary business, a discipline around measurement exists. Yet we often misdirect our focus on measuring inputs and outputs at the expense of measuring what occurs between the inputs and outputs. At the C-level, measurement might mean things such as market capitalization, price/earnings ratios, return on invested capital, and more. At the front-line manager level, we might measure things such as productivity, quality, and workforce measures such as absenteeism or turnover. There is an ever-increasing number of metrics tracked within organizations in between the tactical and strategic levels. Many of these metrics are included in accountabilities for managers at every level of the organization. Yet organizations are often lacking leaders who understand the one factor which affects every one of these metrics:  workplace culture. Every organization has a culture, or social norms, which employees experience daily. It is worth asking yourself whether the culture you have is one you would want it to be.

Companies are full of managers with laser-like focus on managing inputs and outputs.  Is it any wonder that we see static or decreasing levels of employee discretionary effort, or more than the minimum required in a role, on behalf of the organization? Employee engagement is one meaningful measure of discretionary effort in workplace culture. In 2023, engagement levels in organizations ranged, on average, from 23% for global organizations to 33% for US companies.  One in five employees globally, and one in three in the USA, are putting forth discretionary effort in their jobs. Said another way, more than two-thirds of our workforce are not putting forth more than the minimum required.

...more than two-thirds of our workforce are not putting forth more than the minimum required.

Think about that for a moment. For an organization with average employee engagement and all-in salary expense of $5,000,000, at best they are getting an optimal return on only $1.6 million of that spend. In the case of the other $3.4 million spend, the return is variable. Is it any wonder that our friends in accounting refer to payroll as a cost rather than an investment? For actively disengaged employees, those working against the company’s best interests, the effort put forth is countering the value of all other employee efforts.

Workplace culture is not a spreadsheet decision-making factor. Workplace culture is complex, and, for any worthwhile outcomes, requires a consistent leadership approach. Managers need to become leaders who influence employee experiences, which in turn, impact customer experience. Leaders influence and inspire committed contributions from people who are enthusiastic about their work.

Flown anywhere lately? If so, it is possible you have experienced what it feels like to be herded like livestock. With more frequency than we would like, the flying experience can feel as if the business model is numbers of people herded into metal tubes and delivered somewhere else in the world. Seemingly gone are the days where the crew regularly treated us as individuals in a respectful manner. If how airline customers are treated is any indication, just imagine how the airline employees are treated within their own organizations. These front-line employees must, themselves, be treated like livestock. Addressed as one homogenous group, regularly reminded of the rules, receiving little to no support when requests deviate from an accepted norm. If these same employees experienced a workplace where they regularly received affirmation that their work mattered, and they themselves mattered, I daresay customer experience would improve greatly.

Here are three free tips to start building a workplace culture you want as an employer:

  • Treat people as professionals. Invite them to be their best self at work by being YOUR best self at work. When confronted by a challenge, before acting ask yourself “who do I need to show up as in this moment to professionally produce the best outcome for the business and the employee?”  Then, be that person.

  • Respect their time. Do not rely on byzantine rules when receiving requests for time-off. Put forth extra effort to grant time-off or schedule deviation requests such as leaving early or arriving a bit later than usual. In doing so, likely, when in turn you ask someone to work an extra shift or stay late, they will reciprocate. And, for goodness sakes, when an unexpected absence occurs, check-in on the person the next time you see them. Let them know that THEY were missed, and you care about THEM. Resist the urge to remind them of the inconvenience caused to you and others by their absence.

  • Connect the dots. Help employees see that when they went beyond expectations to service the needs of a unique customer, they helped to build your company’s brand as the product or service of choice. Take a page out of Ken Blanchard’s book, The One Minute Manager, and be sure that the one-minute praise, or one-minute redirect, underscores that “when X occurred, it impacts Y.”  Remind people this is why we are here.

The beauty of the tips is that they are at zero direct cost. They might even seem like common sense actions. Yet, they are uncommon in practice. The workplace culture employees experience translates into the experience we receive as customers and consumers. Organizations with average cultures, and average levels of engagement, tend to focus only on celebrating the milestone moments of an employee’s workplace lifecycle:  first day on the job; promotions; or retirements. If they even bother to create any moments that truly matter to the employee. Intentionally designing and delivering a workplace culture which aligns with your business strategy can result in measurable business impact through varied and often immeasurable ways.  Celebrate moments of positive impact in order to generate more of them.

Think critically about the employee experience you are delivering and its downstream impact on your organization’s stakeholders. It is as varied as the number of leaders you employ. Help your leaders deliver their best selves, as leadership is a moment-to-moment endeavor. Help an extraverted leader channel their energy into the most meaningful experiences for their respective team, overcoming tendencies to talk over people or rush decision-making at the expense of considering diverse perspectives before decision-making occurs. Invite the introverted leader to plan for how they wish to be experienced in various scenarios so that, despite new variables occurring in real-time, the individual is prepared to quickly pivot. Focusing on helping leaders leverage their unique strengths, rather than their deficiencies, can go a long way in delivering a desirable employee experience. This, then, turns into a customer experience which provides your organization with a competitive advantage, accelerating strategy execution. Ultimately, making culture intentional can provide you with influence over things such as stability within the workforce over time. People who believe they matter are less likely to leave and more likely to give discretionary effort.


About the Author, Jeff Lindeman:

As Chief People, Culture and Capability Officer, Jeff is responsible for global oversight of WD-40's human resource function, and the coordination of strategy for both the global supply chain and quality functions. Jeff has been with WD-40 Company since 2017 and has held various management positions including director of human resources, information technology, supply chain and finance within the Company’s EIMEA segment.


Jeff received his Master of Science in Executive Leadership from the University of San Diego and his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Walden University. He maintains a SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) credential and serves on the SHRM Certification Commission, which oversees credentialing of human resources professionals around the world.


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