During disruption, many of us are likely to have the ‘threat’ part of our brain triggered more often. Yet now is when we really need to be working at our best. Organisations that deliberately build great cultures ‘get’ the importance of this.

In a report titled, Top 5 Culture Trends for 2020, employee recognition specialists O.C. Tanner shared the following statistics:

‘40% of employees globally are worried about losing their job, while 60% worry about lost income. 65% of employees report feeling a “tense” work environment, and 46% of employees say they are less productive at work. There’s a 221% increase in fearfulness among employees and a 135% increase in feeling isolated.’

Great organisational culture helps people feel safe, promotes transparent and frequent communications and sets people up to succeed – so they can help themselves and their organisation thrive.

Some of the benefits from having great organisational culture include: being able to attract and retain great talent, providing awesome customer service, and positively impacting financial results.

For the foreseeable future, there will continue to be disruption and uncertainty. One of the ways you can help your people and your organisation to cope, is to focus on your organisational culture.

The following are some ideas on how to improve organisational culture.


Zappos is often used as an organisation that does organisational culture well. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, believes what the company sells is ‘happiness.’ In researching this blog, I visited Zappos website, where they share some of the things they and other companies are doing to support others through all this disruption. Here are two examples:

  • Vox Agency is offering pro bono services to struggling non-profits in need of help
  • Zappos are offering their customer service team if you need someone to talk to, ‘no purchase required.’

Working on something that is bigger than ourselves is motivating. During disruption, it is important to take the time to remind everyone why your organisation exists… its purpose.

Your people want to know and connect to that purpose. Look for ways to show who and how your organisation helps staff, suppliers, customers and your communities.


If you want to create a great culture, do it intentionally. Make sure that your culture supports the strategies of your organisation.

As part of that intention, take the time to define your values in words that make sense to your people. This means including them in the conversations about those words and their definitions.

Again, Zappos does this extremely well. Every year for the past 20 years they’ve released the Zappos Culture Book. They are an organisation that lives and breathes those values and they are very intentional about them.

During disruption, the last thing your organisation needs is a haphazard culture. Invest time in making the culture more intentional.


Matthew D. Lieberman, in his book, Social, writes:

‘To the extent that we characterise evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.’

We are fundamentally social beings and we know that connection helps us to feel safe and to function better.

While many people may be working from home, there are still numerous ways to encourage your people to connect, including:

  • encouraging people to meet new colleagues via online platforms
  • having themes for certain days of the week
  • creating online social activities including team family members as well.


Recently, as COVID-19 hit, a client changed how decisions were made and communicated to their leadership team. Prior to this disruption, the process was inclusive and was seen as

transparent, because everyone had the opportunity to provide input into the decision- making process.

Under new pressure, senior leaders started excluding some people from this process. This has resulted in people feeling that decisions are less transparent, trust has been reduced and some leaders are feeling demotivated, because they’ve been excluded.

We all like to feel included in relation to what is going on in our organisation. In their multi-year Project Aristotle study, Google found that the number one factor of their high performing teams was psychological safety, defined as ‘team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.’

Psychological safety comprises two elements:

  • ‘members spoke in roughly the same proportion’ and
  • ‘high “average social sensitivity” – a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions as other nonverbal cues.’ (C. Duhigg, ‘What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team’, The New York Times Magazine, 25 Feb 2016)

One sign of great organisational culture is senior leaders who communicate with their people frequently. It is better to over-communicate and have everyone on the same page, than to under-communicate and create confusion amongst your people.

When people feel that they are being kept out of the loop, they will often make up things, for example, to explain leadership behaviour. Because being excluded triggers the threat response in peoples’ brains, what they make up about leadership behaviour is rarely positive. This often becomes ‘water-cooler’ conversations, which takes people’s focus away from being productive at work.


Over the past few months, we’ve heard a number of conversations where people have helped their organisation through the disruption, including by working from home. However some have felt that their organisation has not appreciated their efforts.

Sadly, there are still some who approach leadership using the ‘old school approach’. Phrases they use include: ‘Why should I appreciate them? They should be grateful they still have a job!’ or ‘I can’t trust them. They need to be back in the office where we can watch them.’

Science clearly demonstrates that, when employee efforts aren’t appreciated and/or staff feel micro-managed, these actions trigger a threat response. Rather than motivating people to achieve more, this behaviour often leads to disengaged, demotivated team members.

The old approach reminds me of the following quote:

CFO to CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people and they leave us?”

CEO: “What happens if we don’t invest in them and they stay?”

Disruptive times need both leaders and their people to be more adaptive. This means developing their people, ensuring that diversity and inclusion are a key leadership focus, providing growth opportunities and listening to everyone’s suggestions.

If you want a great culture, your people need opportunities to grow and thrive.


According to O.C. Tanner’s 2020 Global Culture Report:

‘To create a better overall employee experience, organizations need to evolve beyond the limitations of the lifecycle view, and focus on high-impact, daily micro-experiences instead.’

This means that, rather than just looking to acknowledge your people at review time, you consider how you can make each day a good experience. Take the time to celebrate the little wins, say Hi and connect with your people. Make your workplace a place your people want to turn up to, every day.


Great cultures need great bosses. As the saying goes, ‘One bad apple can spoil the bunch.’ Under stress, leaders revert to type. But leaders who have done the work on themselves can instead show up as calm and assertive. Their people will trust them and perform better under stress, because they know that their leader has their back.

Contrast this approach with leaders who haven’t invested time and energy in their inner work. Under pressure, they will tend to blame, micromanage and generally be ineffective. Unfortunately this type of behaviour cascades down through an organisation, because emotions are contagious and our leader’s behaviour shows us what is and is not acceptable.


It takes time and focus to create a great culture. It would be really easy right now to focus just on the short-term, but we must remember that short-term pain leads to long-term gain.

Don’t let this disruption take your organisation away from focusing on the big picture. Remember, it only takes one bad decision to ruin a reputation of an organisation. Now is not the time to cut corners. It is the time to invest in how your organisation wants to be remembered, now and into the future.

Organisational culture has always been important. Now, more than ever, your people need hope and a great organisational culture can give them hope. It also helps set the organisation up for the ‘new normal’. Now is the time to come back to your organisational culture and see what changes are needed, to ensure that your organisation is prepared for whatever is ahead.

We hope you have enjoyed this blog. We’d love to hear about other tactics you’ve used to help create a great organisational culture. Please feel free to share with us at community@magicallearning.com.