Our business culture celebrates ruthless competition, but does it deliver results? We examine the evidence and talk to Johan Brinkenberg, CEO of Nordic Guarantee, about how to transform your business for success.

Many businesses and corporations take the stance that the more cutthroat and competitive the environment, the better employees will perform. However, research shows that the opposite is the case. Fostering a good working environment increases productivity.

In an article entitled Proof that positive work cultures are more productive,’ published in 2015 in the Harvard Business Review, authors Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron review evidence which says positive work cultures produce healthier, happier and more engaged employees. Poor working environments produce greater absenteeism and staff turnover, massively increasing costs.

So how do you foster better working environments? We spoke to Johan Brinkenberg, CEO of the Swedish-based company Nordic Guarantee, about how to turn around a working culture that just isn’t delivering.

What’s the primary indication that something isn’t right with your company culture, and what’s the first step to doing something about it?

It’s really about the bottom line, that is when you realise your company isn’t as competitive as it used to be or hasn’t become competitive.

Many companies believe the way to resolve this is by thinking about how to attract more clients. But this approach will fail. You need to start from within your company and try to find what isn’t working the way you’d want.

Most often the answer to your question will be…your staff. They may make mistakes, or not doing well in attracting business, or display poor service skills.

Take our example. When we started Nordic Guarantee, we said we wanted to be the challenger in the market. But we didn’t get the commitment from our staff due to our management’s lack of focus in talking to people in the company, and it failed to show with its actions what it wanted. So it failed.

The first step then is recognising you have a problem and being prepared to change. When we focused time and effort on really evolving, we started to see success.

So what does that mean for staff?

It’s about building relationships with them, which can’t be done in one meeting, one week or one month. Managers need to learn how to listen to and talk to, people in their organisation.

And by talking to, I don’t mean the people reporting directly to you. If you are on C-level, you need to start with the guys that are the furthest away from you. These are the people that will have the most significant impact on your culture and therefore your strategy. These are the people that need to be convinced about your culture and what behaviour is right.

Remember the saying ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast?’ Couldn’t agree with this more. Strategy will fail if you do not have the culture to back it up.

You need to get the receptionist to greet customers in that personal way to be able to build a healthy customer relationship. You need to get that guy working with product delivery to check a second time that the order is handled with top quality to outperform your competitors.

Your company’s success is depending on you building your culture from the inside out. Not the other way round.

And what’s beyond listening and talking to people from the bottom up?

Your employees also need to feel free to speak up, so you know what is going on and can give them the right feedback. They need to be open to tell you good stories – when things went right – and bad stories. Don’t shy away from bad stories.

Bad stories must help the whole organisation to learn and change. And don’t blame your staff for bad things that happen. Find a way to solve it. Bad news should always be followed by how it has been solved.

And finding the right ways to give feedback is essential. It’s not enough anymore to have a yearly ‘development discussion’ where performance is discussed, and feedback is given. You need to be there for your employees on a regular basis.

Also, team feedback is important, so each team knows what their individual member’s strengths and weaknesses are. What did the team do well to win the business? Or, what must we do better next time to win?

Most companies have value statements. How important are these?

Without a set of stated values, it is hard to build a culture and to describe ‘how things are done here.’

But I’m not talking about values written on a poster put up in the coffee area. They need to be sincere, repeated and actioned from the top.

What we do at Nordic Guarantee is that, at each monthly company gathering, we celebrate one or two staff members who have lived our values a bit extra. It’s our way of telling everyone how we do things and what behaviour we support.

Workplaces are often very serious environments. Is this necessary?

Yes, serious but not dead serious. Workplaces need to be fun too. Managers need to find out from their staff how to make work more enjoyable. If you have fun, you will enjoy the company. Colleagues become friends, and you want to be with friends. Don’t you?

Again visibility is important. Don’t do this once and let it pass with time. Show your staff what you have done after a year. It will demonstrate that you listen to what they say and that their views are important to you and the success of the company.

Do you believe incentives are important?

Because I prefer working in teams, I believe in team incentives.

According to my experience, it is rarely a single individual’s work that wins the business. It is an effort done by a group of people. The salesman or woman might bring in the business, but if the back office fails or the delivery fails, the customer’s experience of your service will be hurt.

Team incentives also encourage people to work together, not against each other. And that is critical for a good working culture. It’s hard to celebrate alone, but as a team it’s easy.

How would you summarise your message?

That business transformation is about people and relationships, inside and outside your company.

Start with looking at how you want your company to be viewed, build your culture by talking to your people, and never forget that your company does not just consist of managers. The most important people are the ones that often are not seen by the customer. They are the ones that deliver the quality.