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Build a strong company culture by leading with EQ

"Company culture" often equates to little more than a buzzword, sometimes mistakenly associated with workplace perks. But happy hours and ping pong during the workday aren’t the reason that employees will recommend working at your company. Perks won’t motivate people to do their best work. And they surely won’t be the glue that holds your team together when times are difficult and push comes to shove.

A strong company culture needs to be built on a much sturdier foundation. Especially during a time when unemployment is at 3.7 percent—the lowest it’s been in 50 years. To keep employees engaged for the long-term, at a time when there is competition for talent, leaders must ensure that employees can find meaning in their work. Employees want to work towards common goals and share the same values as their company and colleagues. Fostering a strong team or company culture that makes people stick means being tuned into what makes employees tick. This is something that Bridgette Palm and Katie Felten of Strategy House, a Milwaukee-based brand management agency, talk about extensively with their clients. Here they share some tips for building, or reinventing, a strong company culture through practicing emotional intelligence.

Define the why, not the what

As a leader, you may not know every detail about what happens in the day-to-day operations, or all about your employees and their history. But whether you’re a leader of an established company or are starting fresh, remember that you have two ears and one mouth—meaning: start a conversation with your employees and then actively listen to them.

Fostering a strong team or company culture that makes people stick means being tuned into what makes employees tick.

Palm and Felten often work with manufacturers undergoing a digital transformation—many of whom are legacy brands that have been in business for more than 75 years and are looking to solidify their digital presence and redefine or bring their company culture to the forefront.

[Read also: You can’t delegate company culture. You can’t buy it. So, what can you do? Look up.]

What they find is that the changing workforce drives many digital transformation strategies and, as part of that, it’s important to acknowledge the value in what a company stands for—as something that employees can rally around in the midst of change. Many legacy companies, however, are often too close to or unused to celebrating company culture. Yet it’s an important part of bringing your brand to life.

“One of the biggest mistakes when it comes to building a company culture and leading a team is not being intentional,” said Felton. “In today’s world, that’s no longer an option. You have to be thinking about culture and it needs to be part of your direction. Even if you’re not hiring, it’s important for people who already work there. And if you fail there you might not get another chance.”

Whether you're a leader of an established company or are starting fresh, remember that you have two ears and one mouth—meaning: start a conversation with your employees and then actively listen to them.

Here’s the key: Find out why people enjoy the work they do and, more importantly, why they specifically like working for your company. Incorporate team members at all levels of the business into defining the values that matter most to them.

One Strategy House client sat down with their current staff and interviewed them about what they enjoyed about the workplace as though they were surveying new employees. As a result, the company learned more about the reasons ‘why’ employees like working there, and uncovered that some employees had skill sets that would be better leveraged elsewhere within the company.

[Read also: Happiness at work depends on your perspective]

It’s really about getting into the field and having conversations with the people who are already part of your company. From there, you can uncover trends and patterns that begin to solidify into a company culture and value system that you can document and begin to promote both internally and externally.

Find out why people enjoy the work they do and, more importantly, why they specifically like working for your company

“There’s a lot to be said about having a consistent message from leadership that trickles down. Share your company’s direction and vision. This encourages collaboration, provides purpose, and gives people a sense of direction. Especially in times of digital transformation or change in general,” Palm said.

Lead with EQ, not IQ

Change can be hard, and emotional intelligence (EQ) has long been another hot term in the realm of leadership and management. Originally coined in 1990 by psychology professors John D. Mayer of the University of New Hampshire and Peter Salovey of Yale, EQ refers to "the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships, and to manage your own and others’ emotions."

Leading with EQ is about taking a personal approach and deepening your understanding of the people you work with—understanding what makes them tick, what makes them happy, and what sets them off. It’s also about understanding this in yourself and being able to share that with your employees.

[Read also: Put yourself on the path to empathy]

Leading with emotional intelligence involves setting the bar high for both yourself and for employees—then being able to motivate, push, and empower your team through being authentic.

Leading with EQ is about taking a personal approach and deepening your understanding of the people you work with—understanding what makes them tick, what makes them happy, and what sets them off.

Dr. Roshan Parikh (who goes by Dr. Ro), DOS Consultant, Head of Dentistry at Walmart, offered: “You’re the average sum of your people. If you’re helping them do their job, helping them grow and evolve, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll find success as a team.”

[Read also: Why high-HQ companies welcome back boomerang employees]

When you find out what matters to employees and understand how they operate, it becomes easier to motivate them. Employee empowerment should be a constant focus, and it will gradually help build a strong company culture over time.

Empowerment isn’t just a pat on the back and a well-meaning “You can do this!” Sometimes it involves tough conversations. “To empower a workforce, a person, whomever, you need to be genuine. You can’t just wake up and fake interest in people. If it’s not authentic, people will see through it and you will fall short on empowerment because you never really cared in the first place,” Parikh said.

Empowerment isn't just a pat on the back and a well-meaning "You can do this!"

Palm and Felton also underscored the role of authenticity and transparency play in creating a culture that thrives. Having successfully built a growing team around a common vision, Palm said, “We’ve learned a lot along the way by talking directly one-on-one with people. We like to be comfortable being uncomfortable because there’s always something to change and improve. The culture we’ve created has opened the door for those types of conversations. It’s understood that feedback is welcome and we try to empower people through autonomy.”

Parikh said, “When times get difficult, culture better be the backbone of your company. If the culture doesn’t permeate throughout, from the top down and back, if your people don’t believe it or understand it, it doesn’t matter. You can’t just sprinkle culture in like oregano."

[Read also: 5 ways to bring your human(ity) to work]

Culture isn't an add-on

Whether you’re a team of three or lead multiple departments, culture is created through connection, transparency, and communication. The ‘stickier’ you can make your company, or even team, culture by aligning it around the people you already have, and those you want to attract, the more likely it is that employees will stay around. Culture will look different at every company because there’s no one-size-fits-all definition; instead, each company’s culture is meant to be as unique as a personality.

Mariana Ruiz is a freelance copywriter & content marketer using stories to connect with people. She writes for small businesses and entrepreneurs on customer success, marketing, lifestyle and travel topics. Her hobbies include traveling to tropical beaches as often as possible and contemplating what it means to be human in this wild world. Connect with her on LinkedIn or say hello on Instagram.