How middle managers make or break your culture of well-being

An article by Quentin Millington, guest speaker at our upcoming event. Click here to find out more and register.

Covid-19 caused many of us to stop and consider our physical health. As lockdown went on, stress and uncertainty in our work and personal lives soon made mental health a concern. In many organisations, this new fascination with health has translated into efforts to enhance corporate culture. The aim? To ensure that employee wellbeing is better supported.

As you know, talk of culture often emphasises ‘values’. These describe what it takes to succeed – teamwork, innovation, integrity, and so on. We routinely see executives line up on stage to voice commitment to the latest

way of doing things. But no volume of tub-thumping from the podium will change a company’s culture. This is because culture – and the point is often missed – is about what happens in practice. Culture is the sum of the various norms of decisionmaking, behaviour, and performance that make up day-to-day work across the organisation. And when it comes to day-to-day work, nothing matters more than the attitudes, words, behaviours, and actions of middle managers. Middle managers make or break any ambitions the senior team has to nurture a new culture.

Consider employee engagement. The Values and Organisational Integrity group I led for Engage for Success found that engagement increased dramatically when a line manager’s actions were aligned with company values. If managers do not buy into your new culture then nothing will change. This is readily seen from how managers dictate the work of people in their teams: they set goals, monitor tasks, and reward or challenge others. What chance do individuals have of (for example) a healthy work-life balance if their managers are blind to anything but performance outcomes? When it comes to work in practice, middle managers typically operate under the radar of the senior team. Their actions, not the rhetoric of executives, determine the day-to-day experiences of their team members. In short, whether the company is seen to look after an person is a question of line management.

If you aspire to go beyond pithy slogans – if for you people’s experiences really do matter – then every manager must understand, speak about, and act upon a personal commitment to well-being. Culture change becomes reality only when managers make a stand for a new way of working.

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