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Home » 3 Ways To Create A Work Culture That Brings Out The Best In Employees: Chris White (Transcript)

3 Ways To Create A Work Culture That Brings Out The Best In Employees: Chris White (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Chris White’s talk titled “3 Ways To Create A Work Culture That Brings Out The Best In Employees” at TEDxAtlanta 2019 conference.

In his TEDx talk “3 Ways To Create A Work Culture That Brings Out The Best In Employees,” Chris White emphasizes the importance of fostering a positive and engaging work environment. He identifies three key strategies: firstly, encouraging open and honest communication to ensure employees feel heard and valued.

Secondly, he stresses the need for responsiveness from management, advocating for actions that align with employee feedback to avoid cynicism and disengagement. Thirdly, White urges companies to aim higher than merely avoiding dissatisfaction, by inviting employees to bring their whole selves to work, leveraging their diverse experiences and strengths.

He highlights the significance of dialogue and finding common ground in disagreements, offering a variety of responses when consensus isn’t possible. White also underscores the detrimental effects of “checkouts,” or disengagement, both financially and culturally. The talk concludes by urging leaders to foster a culture of continuous communication and responsiveness, leading to a more dynamic and fulfilling workplace.

Listen to the audio version here:


The Google Walkout: A Case Study in Corporate Protest

Do you remember when 20,000 people walked out of Google in protest of unfair and unequal treatment of women at the company? On a single day? The protest was dramatic. It was headline grabbing. It sent a clear signal. We will no longer check our identities and our values at the workplace door. It was also the exception rather than the rule. Because while brave, certainly brave, the Google employees felt safe enough to organize collectively without fear of reprisals.

They felt secure enough that even if they lost their jobs, they’d still probably be highly employable somewhere else. Not everyone has that luxury. Not everyone feels that way about speaking up at work. Social movement scholars would call the Google walkouts a mobilizing structure. Others mobilize in different ways depending on their context and their cause. In fact, walkouts do happen pretty much every day in the workplace.

They’re just not normally done with our feet. Instead, they’re checkouts. They’re invisible walkouts that happen with our hearts, and with our hands, and with our voices. And let’s be honest, amongst the TED group here, pretty much all of us have checked out at some point in our careers, haven’t we? When we feel psychologically unsafe or unvalued, we protest quietly, sometimes even silently or subconsciously.

The Cost of Disengagement in the Workplace

Maybe we stop trying as hard at work. Or maybe we act in ways that subtly undermine leadership or act against the organization’s objectives, just a little bit. In corporate speak, we become disengaged or actively disengaged. Like 70% of the workforce, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the global economy. So, if you’re an executive and you want to avoid walkouts or checkouts before they become issues at your organization, there are three things that you can do.

First, unblock communication. Walkouts and checkouts happen when we feel that we’re not being heard, we’re not being respected or considered in the workplace. And just about all of us have experienced having our ideas shot down or ignored in the workplace. When it happens, we tend to experience it as an identity threat.

Some of us respond to that by closing down, shutting off. When we feel that we don’t belong or that we’re unimportant, our reaction is to stop caring as much about our work and caring as much about the people around us. So, I remember feeling heartbroken when I was a new manager. I just asked a colleague of mine with decades of work experience for a recommendation on a problem that she brought to me.

Communicating and Responding to Employee Concerns

We stood in agonizing silence while she searched for an answer. Any answer? After a long pause, she looked up and said, “I have never been asked what I think at work before.” Now, that is tragic, and it’s all too common. And to avoid this pitfall, we need to continually invite people to speak up at work.

Because making these invitations just a routine part of how we engage with each other in the workplace actually lays really important groundwork that is needed for those times when people have to speak up and have to be heard on issues that are hard for management to hear. Backed into a corner by the scale and the intensity of the protest, Google CEO Sundar Pichai had a choice. He could choose to respond in a way that would close the door to people acting in line with their values, or he could choose to open it wider.

Pichai’s public response to the protest was not defensive. Instead, he sent an email out to the whole company. He said, “I understand the anger and disappointment that many of you feel. I feel it, too. And I am fully committed to making progress on an issue that has persisted for far too long in our society. And yes, here at Google, too.” He informed managers of the planned activities. He reassured protesters that they would have the support that they needed.

But checkouts, because they’re invisible, are even harder to notice and address than a 20,000-person walkout. Instead, managers have to proactively unblock the organization. They need to ask questions. They need to invite input. They need to foster creative conflict. But especially in that fragile moment where people have the courage to challenge us, we, too, need to embrace them for it.

Addressing Disagreements and Finding Common Ground

But then we need to become responsive because we know, don’t we, that it’s not enough just to hear people out. Words without action breed cynicism. They lay their seeds for future walkouts and checkouts. The Google walkouts were not a first step. They were a last resort. The Google employees had already spoken to managers and HR and ombudspeople.

This was an escalation because they felt their issues were not being addressed. They’re not being taken seriously. And while Pichai’s response was a good one, it was supportive, some people continue protesting to this day at Google because they do not feel that sufficient action has followed the supportive words. Now, when managers and employee activists are on the same page, then action is a natural next step.

But here’s the thing. We’re not always going to agree, are we? Sometimes employee activists will raise issues that managers just don’t agree with. And in that fragile moment, we will determine what kind of culture we will have. Will we engage in dialogue and debate? Can we stay unified even in dissent? Or will we choose to skate over our differences, allow our relationships to become inauthentic and our identities to become diluted? What will it be?

Well, at a minimum, we can try to have dialogue. We can try to resolve our differences and find common ground that even if it’s not ideal for any one party, might be acceptable for all. And sometimes, though, that is just too hard. The common ground can’t be found.

Choices in Response to Unresolved Differences

And in that difficult place, we have three choices. First, if we feel we can’t live with the resolution, then we can choose to leave the company. We can find employers whose values more closely align with our own. Or second, we can choose to stay with the company. We can compartmentalize. Keep doing a good job and hope for an issue. Look for a time to address the issue again in the future.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is an advocate of a third path. He says, “Let’s disagree and commit.” Address the issue head on and he’ll ask his team, “Look, I know we don’t agree here, but will you gamble with me on it?” And if your reservoir of trust in your relationship is deep enough, you can continue to move forward on the work and agree to keep working on the issue as you go. Any one of those options is better than the alternative of checking out, which is a surefire path to organizational demise and professional misery.

Aiming Higher and Inviting Whole Selves to Work

So finally, aim higher. Doesn’t it seem like a low bar just to avoid checkouts and walkouts? Shouldn’t we strive for more? We need to invite people to bring their whole selves to work because when everyone can bring their life experiences, we just have so much more to offer. We are more than the sum of our resumes.

This is Joan Bohan. Joan is a finance director at Disney Europe. She’s also a mother and her son, Roman, has dyslexia. Did you know that one in 10 people live with dyslexia? That’s a huge population, a huge potential market for a company like Disney.

So when Disney announced an internal contest for new and impactful business ideas, Joan just couldn’t resist applying. She’d heard about modifications that made it easier for dyslexics to read, wider, different larger fonts, wider spaces between letters, rulering between lines, but these weren’t widely available. Could Disney help with that? Because Disney invited Joan to bring her whole self to work and all of her unique strengths, values, passions, experiences, they can now better serve millions of people with dyslexia.

The Path Forward: Communication and Responsiveness

So all this sounds good. Unblock communication, become responsive, aim higher. Where do we begin? Well, I’d like to end by offering you a short test. I’d like you on Monday morning to go back into work and I’d like you to walk around and after some pleasant chitchat, talk to 10 different people and ask them this question. “Hi, what don’t we talk about around here that we really should be talking about?”

You’ll probably get one of those awkward silences and that’s okay. If they do pause, then say, “Come to me later, tell me what you find.” If no one has anything, then your organization is probably blocked. But that’s okay. By asking the question, you have signaled openness. Keep going. Keep asking the questions.

Ari Weinzweig, CEO of Zingerman, likes to say, “Success doesn’t mean we have no problems, it means we have better problems.” And my closing wish for you is that you earn better problems by unblocking communication, by becoming responsive. Over time, more and more people will open up and start sharing more of themselves, their ideas, their unique offerings. And over time, you will have a new, better problem. Harnessing that energy and aiming higher.

Thank you.

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