Unlock greatness in your employees


Welcome back to Leader Talk! In episode 53 we were privileged enough to chat to Aga Bajer, Founder and CEO of CultureBrained. 

Aga is a culture strategist, coach, and Founder and CEO of CultureBrained. Over the past 20 years, Aga has been helping companies strengthen their culture in a way that brings the best results. Scaling a business is not all about the figures. Company culture plays a pivotal role in getting your team to roll at top speed. Having worked in the start-up, scale-up and corporate world, Aga knows this all too well. The right culture comes from choice, not chance.

In this chat we discussed the important role culture plays in business, how to recognise when your culture needs to improve and taking ownership of your company culture. 

Want to learn more? You can read or listen to our chat with Aga Bajer on YouTubeSpotifyListen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.

Authored by Aga Bajer, Founder and CEO of CultureBrained.

As small to medium business owners, we play an essential role in building our company’s culture. After over 20 years of consulting, not only do I think it’s possible to change company culture, I have seen it happen in measurable ways. Companies that see their culture improve each year, also see their business results improving with it. Focusing on growing a positive work culture and being the role model for your team should be your number one priority if you want to see your business get results and succeed.  

A great company culture unlocks greatness in its people. Good culture drives motivation within the team leading to high performance. Toxic culture, on the other hand, creates unnecessary friction, drama or even unethical behaviour – all the things that prevent employees from doing their best work. So, how can you, as a leader, create a positive culture that enables your people to do the best work they possibly can?

Shift your focus
As leaders and business owners, we often aim to make our employees happy. However, this is not our job. Happiness is the personal responsibility of each individual in the company. Happiness is one’s own responsibility. Our responsibility as business leaders is to create an environment where people can thrive and do their best work.

This is a pitfall into which many of us fall. Often, we want our employees to be happy so we give them ping-pong tables, massage chairs and other perks. However, people eventually get used to these things and they end up having zero impact on them, how they feel about their work, and how they perform. I deeply believe that as business leaders, we need to shift our focus to creating an environment where employees have what they actually need to thrive.

There are specific reasons why people come to work – they want to be stimulated, solve interesting problems, feel like they are doing something important or meet interesting people. People go to work to feel a sense of fun, meaning and belonging. They want to know that what they are doing has an impact on something larger than them.  

So, instead of focusing on making your employees happy, focus on how you can create an environment that enables that sense of fun, meaning and belonging because these are the pillars of thriving cultures that emerged from my research.

We can strengthen these pillars by giving our employees the best possible work experience, not life experience. We need to recognise the fact that work is only one part of life and we, as leaders, can’t possibly make people’s whole lives great, but we can make their work experience great. That should be our focus.

Recognise when your culture needs some work
No matter the size of your business, as the owner, you should always assume you have a blind spot. Rarely is a leadership team aware of all the issues in their company. In culture snapshots that we take for our clients, there’s always a gap between the leader’s perspective and the perspective of the rest of the company. That’s why you must remain willing to listen to other team members and learn what you can do to improve their work experience.

Certain things might indicate something is wrong with the culture you have created, and it’s time for a fix. Firstly, when there is either too much harmony or silence. If you throw out an idea in a team meeting and no one offers their opinion or are simply accommodating to your opinion, then something is not right. It is not normal for people to lack different opinions and you may have been complicit in creating that environment.

Secondly, when your employees speak about clients or colleagues with contempt, disrespect or blame others, there may be a bigger issue than meets the eye. How your employees talk is very indicative of how they think and act. If you have created a space where people speak negatively behind someone’s back, and no one addresses it, it is a problem.

A third indication of poor company culture is employees consistently making sacrifices to achieve results. It is very alarming if employees are pulling constant all-nighters, never setting boundaries, or walking over other people to accomplish something. If you don’t take care of your people, your people will not take care of the results.

Three pillars of a good culture
What makes good company culture? The answer goes back millennia. Humans are hard-wired to seek three things: fun, meaning and belonging. This is especially true in the workplace.

However, many confuse fun with ping-pong tables and pizza every Friday. Fun in a work environment is finding joy in the work itself. Does the work give you energy or does it drain your energy? 

For people to enjoy their work, they need to be stretched out of their comfort zone. They cannot be doing the same thing every day. They also need to connect with other people. Our studies have shown employees, both extroverts and introverts, seek collaboration. Contrary to popular belief, this does not need to involve extracurricular activities. You just need to shift how you do things. For example, if you are a restaurant owner, instead of telling your employees what to put on the menu next week, you can ask them to sit down with you and discuss what you could offer on next week’s menu. When you give people a collaborative task, you stretch them out of their comfort zone and build relationships. This provides fun, meaning and belonging all at the same time.

Additionally, it is up to you as the leader to be playful. Studies have shown leaders who don’t take themselves too seriously are more effective and impactful. Again, you only have to shift how you do things. No team will find innovative solutions if there is tension. Simply cracking a joke can lighten the mood and take people into a relaxed headspace that enables creativity.

How you build culture is up to you
It’s striking to see how many great successful entrepreneurs have one thing in common; discipline. They have their morning routines, work out daily, and always take action before a problem arises.

Business owners should use that same discipline for their company culture. You can choose to take small actions now every day that make life so much easier, or you can prolong it until the culture devolves into a serious problem. Culture is one of those things that is infinitely easier to tackle when you do it intentionally from day one. If left too late, it can quickly turn into a problem that’s very hard to fix.

There is so much information from various sources, and we can get lost in all the different tactics that may not even work for your specific team. Instead of trying to tick off a to-do list of specific tactics, ensure you are at least following the principles. That is, creating an environment where people thrive through experiencing fun, meaning and belonging every day.

For example, having a meeting every morning to talk about how you saw your colleagues live a certain value may work for some but not for you. Focusing on the principles will help you identify the tactics that work for you and your team. Engage your employees and ask them what the three pillars of fun, meaning and belonging look like to them. If this helps, here are some more details on what the three principles of a great company culture consist of:

Hold yourself accountable
By observing and admitting your company culture is not at its best, you’re already one step ahead of many other businesses. Often, we see business owners that try to find fault in the people below them rather than asking themselves how they might have contributed to that environment.   

As the founder, you have undoubtedly played a heavy hand in creating the culture. The first step is to reflect on what you have done to contribute to the negative aspects. The second step is asking yourself what you are ready to do now to move it in the right direction. 

If you want to be taken seriously by your team, be open and humble. Admit that you have made many mistakes and explain what you intend to do going forward. Then walk the talk! Be consistent and change yourself before demanding anyone in your team to change.

If your team has toxic people, the blame should not be on them. You have probably contributed to that by not holding them accountable.

‘Brilliant jerks’ is what we call people who are difficult to work with but have exceptional talent in what they do. As a leader, do you accept this behaviour because you don’t want to lose a great talent? If you want a successful business, you need a good culture, so you cannot tolerate brilliant jerks on your team. You need to confront them and come to an agreement on how you can constructively move on and create a healthy culture.

If you want your business to succeed, good company culture is crucial. As business owners and leaders, we need to make the intentional effort to create an environment where our employees experience fun, meaning and belonging every day. You need to be radically candid about what has gone wrong and listen to your team to figure out how you will move forward. Ask yourself, have you created a culture that enables your employees to do their best work?