3 Ways to Cultivate a Positive Workplace Culture — Without Upsetting the NLRB


Happy employees who treat their managers and co-workers with respect and civility is usually the mark of a strong and powerful workplace culture. 

But that's not necessarily how the National Labor Relations Board sees it. 

In what can only be described as an Alice in Wonderland-like, down-is-up and up-is-down ruling, the NLRB recently ruled in favor of the Communications Workers of America – the union that represents T-Mobile employees — who protested a T-Mobile Employee Handbook clause on maintaining a positive work environment.

As the Harvard Business Review noted,

"The clause (in question) reads as follows: “[e]mployees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with internal and external customers, clients, co-workers, and management.” Their reasoning was that – if employees are discontent – they need to be able to freely air that displeasure. The (NLRB) agreed with them, ruling in favor of the union. “It’s official: employers can’t force you to be happy. Hallelujah,” cried the Guardian."

Three rules about "candid" feedback

HBR goes on to point out that the NLRB ruling goes hand-in-hand with the new workplace trend towards "radical candor" and frankness, where feedback given in a supportive way is honest and "immeasurably more effective than blunt criticism (because) it motivates performance, is less likely to be misinterpreted, and uplifts rather crushing employees."

The article even goes on to list "three, research-backed rules of thumb to help managers can deliver constructive and candid feedback," but honestly, these "research-backed rules" sound pretty familiar to just about any manager who has had even a modicum of success managing people.

See what you think about these rules, and I'll weigh in as well: 

  1. Deliver more positive than negative feedback. From HBR: "High-performing organizations deliver roughly five times as many positive statements (supportive, appreciative, encouraging) to every one negative statement (critical, disapproving, contradictory). This is because bad is stronger than good; our brains focus on negative feedback more than positive feedback. Positive communication correlates with much higher worker engagement."

    My take: You don't need a bunch of research to know that you won't get very far as a manager delivering a heavy dose of negative comments. Good managers have long known that the "spoonful of sugar" approach — mixing a lot of good with a little non-so-good — is always the best way to provide feedback in just about any workplace context.

  2. Focus on communicating your colleague’s strengths, unique contributions, and best-self demonstrations. From HBR: "Traditionally, we tend to focus on giving employees critical feedback. However, by focusing on their weaknesses, we only create competence. By focusing on their strengths, we create excellence.  Be as specific about positive feedback as you are about negative feedback."

    My take: This is another notion that's not new, because good managers have long known (as management guru Peter Drucker often pointed out) that focusing on what people do well and getting them to do more of that is always the best way to get the most out of people.

  3. Emphasize collaboration and commonalities. From HBR: Try to stay objective when you speak about the negative event. Describe the problematic situation (rather than evaluating it), identify objective consequences or your personal feelings associated with it (rather than placing blame); and suggest acceptable alternatives."

    My take: Placing blame has never made much sense. I've always tried to focus on what we can learn from what went wrong and do differently moving ahead. That's not exactly a new notion, of course, and sharp managers have been taking a similar approach for a long time.

This isn't new — especially for good managers

All of this is pretty simple: The focus here shouldn't be on how these "rules" as proposed by HBR are a new way to be frank and radically candid with emplyees, but on how smart managers have been doing this for a long time. The "news" in all of this is that these common-sense management measures that Peter Drucker advocated are now, finally, reaching a larger audience. 

Being completely honest with anyone — wife, husband, child, best friend, neighbor, your Aunt Bertha — is only a good thing if you handle it in away that isn't so blunt that it doesn't break their spirit. Feedback is only good if you can get the recipient to accept it in a way that makes them want to improve, not feel burned and abused.

This has been common practice for sensitive, thinking people for a long time. It speaks volumes about the state of modern management that it is just becoming a "best practice" at this late date.