workplace culture

Many organizations talk to their leaders about “creating workplace culture.” Some talk about it in the context of hiring, training, or values. Others in terms of work ethic, resilience, or “synergy.”

The challenge with these approaches is that you can’t really create workplace culture. Culture is the sum of people, the ways they interact, and how work actually gets done. You can, however, improve your people’s ability to interact and connect. This, in turn, will foster a healthier and more aware culture.

To help leaders get moving in the right direction, we put together 11 tried and true strategies leaders can use to strengthen the workplace culture of their teams and their organizations. All 11 strategies stem from one skillset which will help you and your organization to recognize, understand, and manage your emotions in order to interact and connect as effectively as possible. This skillset is emotional intelligence, or EQ.


  1. Learn to Speak EQ

Establish a basic understanding of EQ with your team and you will all have a shared framework and vocabulary you can draw on as you interact. You can read an article or a book together, take an assessment, or train together in a course. However you approach the topic, cover it together and follow up together. That way EQ will become your shared lens to look at situations, emotions, and relationships. One of the best examples we’ve seen of this at TalentSmartEQ is a police department that offers trainings to not only department members, but also to their families. That way they had a common vocabulary both at work and at home.


  1. Show People You Care (Don’t Just “Feel” It)

To be an empathetic leader you have to show empathy. At the end of the day, how will the other person know you care? Tell an employee to stay home when they can’t find a babysitter. Take the extra step of saying, “I hear you, that’s really tough,” or “Congratulations on your promotion. I’ve seen how hard you work and you really deserve it.” Another way of approaching this is to think: I would be disappointed if this person never realized that I felt ___.

Jackye Clayton, the VP of Talent Acquisition and DEI at Textio, described how valuable it is for leaders to open up and show they care: “When a leader demonstrates genuine transparent emotion, it makes it okay for employees to feel like they can be themselves at work and feel safe. This safety can lead to overall better morale among co-workers and in turn, will affect productivity. This is especially important while people are working in remote or hybrid environments.”


  1. Build Trust Brick by Brick

Like the ancient city Rome, trust is not built in a day. It takes time; time filled with consistency in actions, help, availability, and response. There may not be a way to “fast track” trust, but psychologist Dr. Laura Delizonna suggests a few emotionally intelligent behaviors that can help you solidify your foundation:

  • Approach conflict with intent to collaborate. This boils down to looking at conflicts through the lens of “How can we both win?”
  • Speak human to human. Remind yourself that the person you are talking to has their own life that’s as deep and wide as yours.
  • Be open and curious. Don’t cast blame. If you find yourself casting blame or judging someone, try to turn that judgment on its head by getting curious about why they’re acting the way they are.


  1. Hold Office Hours—Not an Open-Door Policy

A basic way to show your direct reports you care and have time for them is to set open meeting hours where anyone can drop by or set scheduled time with you (in person or virtually). These hours will help you foster an emotionally intelligent workplace culture by setting aside time to connect, share, coach, deliver feedback, open up, or just hang out.

We say “office hours” instead of “open door policy” because we recognize that most leaders need time to get their own work done. By setting hours of availability, you give yourself set periods of time to crank away at the work you need to accomplish while still making the people around you feel comfortable popping by. In fact, the idea that you hold office hours makes it even more okay to just pop by (or virtually drop in) because you set a specific purpose during those hours. Just make it clear when you describe your office hours how you’re open to using the time in a variety of ways—formalized feedback, help with a specific task, chatting and getting to know each other better, and so on.

  1. Give Candid Feedback, and Give it Now

The hedge fund Bridgewater is famous for their candid feedback tactics. Healthy disagreement is so encouraged at Bridgewater that when they found their dry erase board didn’t erase properly, they readily spent hours debating the decision-making process behind their purchase. Sure, this approach seems excessive (especially for teams that don’t rely on conflict the way a hedge fund does), but their employee tenure speaks for itself. Employees stay a long time and share a common sentiment: They can’t imagine a workplace culture where people sidestep feedback.

Emotional intelligence is often made out to be all about “being nice” when it’s really about being effective. That means delivering tough feedback to help people learn and grow. It’s about catching actions that might get in someone’s way and calling their attention to it so they can course correct. It also means pushing past your own feelings of fear and discomfort to do what’s best for both parties in the long run.


  1. Expect People’s Needs and Motivations to Change

In the show The Office, Jim switches offices from Scranton, PA to Stamford, CT. On his first day in Stamford, he eats a tuna sandwich. Andy, who sits in front of Jim, sees the tuna sandwich, and to Jim’s infuriation, calls him “Big Tuna” from that point forward even though Jim never eats a tuna sandwich again. A lot of managers are like Andy. Even when it comes to much more important elements of work, like the needs and motivations of their direct reports. Someone asks for a raise during their first performance and they assume that person is driven primarily by money from that point forward. Leaders should tune into the needs and motivations of their direct reports all the time. They should also expect needs and motivations to change. Wants, needs, motivations, and dreams should all be a part of your regular conversation. At one point in time, one person may want more flexibility vs. money and more growth opportunity vs. job stability. Five years later, they might want the opposite. People’s needs change as their lives change, so be proactive. As a leader, ask your people what you can do to keep them engaged, but also what you can do to help them reach their long-term goals.


  1. Have that Tough Conversation Directly

One of the most common comments on our Team EQ assessment is that “people hate when team members complain behind each other’s backs.” It’s a funny comment because research also shows that people love talking behind each other’s backs. In other words, people both love and hate talking behind each other’s backs. That’s because gossip is evolutionary, evolved to keep us safe. Research shows that gossip “tickles” the brain, making us feel good in real time. But, as our values and rational thought kick into gear, gossip doesn’t feel so good—hence, the Team EQ comments. As a team leader, you can do a few things to discourage gossip and encourage face-to-face “real talk.” 1. Model real talk by speaking candidly and directly when you have a problem. 2. Don’t participate in gossip. 3. When you hear gossip, suggest the person give that feedback directly.


  1. Make EQ a Part of Your Yearly Review

Making EQ a part of your formal review process signals the value you place on EQ to your direct reports. It also broaches the sometimes “taboo” subject of workplace emotions and relationships.

I remember the comments on my first formal EQ review at TalentSmartEQ. Fifteen colleagues evaluated my EQ. Being young and new, I dreaded reading about how I came across as inexperienced, unprofessional, and immature. I opened my report and the first comment I read was, “I wish you would open up more about who you are. I wish you would share more than weekend plans and go deeper. What are your values, beliefs, and dreams?” My first comment was the exact opposite of my fears and highlighted that I was overcompensating. This formalized process signaled to me right away what mattered to the people around me (the workplace culture). I was then able to adjust my approach early, reevaluate yearly, and rate and comment on the EQ skills of my coworkers too. Emotions, relationships, and the nuances of how my coworkers wanted to interact became a fluid part of how I work.


  1. Choose One High-Impact Skill and Develop it Together

Highlighting one key skill that connects your team externally is like giving each member of your team a compass to navigate your workplace culture.

If you’re a content marketing team, you might align around “interviewing subject matter experts” so you can deliver higher quality, more interesting content. If you’re a sales team, you might align around marketing strategy so you can best support their work. At a San Diego biotech company, this means developing the ability to communicate complicated science not only to one another, but also to software engineers and computer programmers with no biology background.

Regardless of industry or role, the key is to consider the skills that connect your team to the greater organization. These are the skills that you should emphasize and practice together.


  1. Identify and Remove Sources of Toxicity

When you realize you forgot your laptop charger and you want to preserve your battery, you start to do little things that you know will make your charge last longer. You close out unnecessary tabs, stop listening to music, and turn down your screen brightness. You can do the same thing with your team’s energy by actively seeking out sources of toxicity and addressing or removing them. Sources of toxicity are plentiful, and each may require its own specific removal approach, but here are a few examples to look out for:

  • One negative person. Look out for a teammate who is consistently negative. They could feel wronged by a teammate, a decision, or the organization.
  • Another team. Marketing and sales can butt heads as they vie for attention, resources, and approach (i.e., sales wants to drive what marketing is doing).
  • A system or task. A difficult task that demands attention and time, but no one wants to do it.

All of these sources become toxic because they impact you and your team’s emotions. EQ skills can help you recognize how a source of toxicity is affecting you and your team. Then you can slow down and make a decision about next steps.


  1. Connect EQ to Your Company’s Values

Emotional intelligence influences most values and competencies. Draw out the connections between EQ and your company’s values to show this to your team. We’ve done this for a number of organizations including our own (Organizational Values in green and EQ Behaviors in blue). The key is to map out specific high EQ behaviors that drive your core values.

workplace culture

From Insights to Action

Fostering your team’s workplace culture is hard. If this were easy, engagement, job satisfaction, and motivation would be much higher. Heck, we might not even be in the midst of a Great Resignation. Because emotional intelligence is ultimately about practice, we break it down into strategies like the ones above. Give them a try, one at a time, but start with the first on the list: Learn to Speak EQ.

For more easy-to-implement strategies to improve your EQ, purchase our book Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

To learn more about emotional intelligence training and TalentSmartEQ’s programs and solutions, please visit: or contact TalentSmartEQ at 888-818-SMART.