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How T-Mobile’s efforts to promote a positive work environment backfired

Few people would argue against the benefits of a positive work environment. Least of all me. After all, I have made it my mission to help organizations create just that. So, I was pretty amazed to read in an article by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker that T-Mobile (in the U.S.) faced some unexpected repercussions of its efforts to foster an attractive work climate. What happened?

Apparently T-Mobile had chosen for rules and regulations. A provision was included in its employee handbook requiring workers “to maintain a positive work environment in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships.” The (U.S.) National Labor Relations Board ruled this was a bridge too far. The wording in the employee manual regarding the “positive work environment,” was too “ambiguous and vague” and might discourage employees to speak freely about issues and concerns.

Konnikova then cites several studies which point to other adverse effects of such “behavior-limiting regulations”. One is that it may inhibit thinking and sap initiative and motivation. Another is that putting on an emotional mask at work—conforming to a certain image that doesn’t correspond to how you feel or who you are—depletes your stock of energy. The article finishes by concluding that “we all deserve a positive environment, but that very positivity is at risk when we try to force it rather than fostering it by example.”

Is setting the example really all we can do? I think some additional steps can be taken that will help get us there. For starters, why not have employees participate in the definition of what constitutes a great work environment, including the key behaviors that go with it? There is a lot of evidence to suggest that participation makes all the difference when it comes to awareness, understanding and conviction. Yes, this implies giving up some control of course. The pay back is that the whole thing comes alive because people are far more inclined to take ownership of the outcomes.

Secondly, better than vague statements to describe the desired behavior are specific and positively formulated values and behaviors. Thirdly, explicit praise for those who demonstrate these behaviors is an incredibly important “proof point” that helps to build confidence and ignite the process of social contagion.

Finally, rather than being forced, the desired behavior can – far more friendly – be nudged. This is a matter of creatively bending everything that makes up the work environment in order to induce people to unconsciously display certain behaviors, from the physical environment to structure, processes, rewards and skill development. But admittedly, nothing beats setting the right example, beginning at the top.

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