Q&A: Tiny Steps that Can Transform Your Company Culture

Tweaking the smallest habits can deliver huge results.

A great corporate culture can help you retain your best employees, boost productivity and performance and stay competitive. And it doesn’t take time-sucking corporate retreats or dinners on the company’s dime to achieve it. In fact, according to Margaret Heffernan, author of several business books including “Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes,” some of the simplest ways are the most effective.

In this Q&A she reveals tips that any company, including companies in the construction industry, can use.

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Q: You say it's often small changes that make the biggest impact on company culture. Can you give a couple of examples?  

A: Sure. In one company, the decision was made that each shift would share a 10-minute coffee break together to foster a sense of community and helpfulness. The teams with the coffee breaks were $10M more profitable than teams that did not have the coffee breaks.

In a productivity experiment, one tech company implemented a rule whereby on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, no meetings could be held between 10:00 and 12:00. Productivity increased by 60 percent. These are small changes, their impact is huge.

Another company I work with has an annual “Love Week” where each employee is assigned to make another employee feel appreciated. They may do this with notes, observations, gratitude. The company has found that this one small thing is the only thing they do that increases productivity, engagement and retention. In fact, throughout the year, employees share ideas about how they will make the next Love Week better than the one before.

Q: What small changes make meetings more effective? 

A: A couple of rules are helpful: One: No interruption. Two: Nobody can speak more than a minute (or two). I’ve also found, in my own organizations, that sometimes standing up during meetings encourages everyone to get to the point faster. 

One other thought is to make a decision but, if it’s really important, have a cooling off period and reconvene 24 or 48 hours later and ask for reflections that might alter the decision. Most people think about decisions after the meeting, not just during it, and those insights need to be captured and heard.

Q: Is there a productive way to argue?  

A: Of course! Ask open-ended questions, which typically start with “wh” — why? what? which? when? where? Use an argument to explore, not to shut down. Appoint people to represent different perspectives: You are the boss, another is the employee, another is the customer, another is a member of the community where the company operates, etc. This gives people permission to adopt different views and it may help them develop imaginative understanding and critical thought.

Q: Name a habit or way of thinking that a top manager or even the company president should adopt.

A: It is crucial that anyone in a position of power has a friend, coach, colleague or mentor not in the business with whom they can explore options and opportunities, someone who has only their best interests at heart. Everyone in the business has an agenda; any leader needs at least one person they trust who can help them think through critical issues with no agenda. 

I also think it’s important to listen to the voice in your head that says, “It is possible that you are entirely wrong.” If you were wrong, what would the argument be?

Q: Construction companies sometimes encounter tension between managers in the office and managers in the field. How can they work better together?

A: It is essential that these people get to know each other as people, not just units on a project plan. Investing time at the beginning of a project in learning who everyone is, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, what they care about, their skills, experience, expertise, mistakes and successes — this is how people develop trust.

If I think of you as a Vice President or a Director instead of a person who wants the project to go as well as I do, then I will fill my ignorance of you with stereotypes and assumptions, and from those, unproductive conflicts are bound to flow. Invest time in getting to know each other as human beings up front, and people are more likely to ask for and give help, to raise concerns early instead of too late, to explore opportunities for doing work that is even better than originally planned. 


Marianne Wait is an editor and writer who creates content for Fortune 500 brands. 


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