Karlyn Borysenko has seen a lot of hard places to work. A consultant studying for her PhD in organizational psychology, she gets asked to go in, diagnose, and tell business leaders the truths about their work cultures they don’t want to hear. Even at companies where positivity is policy, she often finds leaders’ efforts lacking.

We were curious about why so many business owners are successful at building great cultures while they’re small, only to become more negative as they become something larger. So we sat down with Karlyn and asked her what entrepreneurs can do to revivify positivity in their organizations.

“It’s not that I’ve never seen a company that has a truly healthy culture,” she said, “but I’ve never seen it happen when they have not made a very proactive effort in that area.”

How Leaders Stumble With Work Culture

One of the many blunders entrepreneurs make when trying to build a culture of happiness, optimism and productivity, says Borysenko, is assuming from the start they understand just what it is they’re trying to do. Having built their businesses from the ground up and hiring the right people to bring it from fetal stage to early success, it’s natural to assume that the same things that got them from startups to burgeoning businesses will simply catch on as they scale into a small enterprise.

“I’ve never met a person who would turn down a beer fridge, but people don’t build emotional relationships with beer fridges. They build them with each other.”

– Karlyn Borysenko, principal of

Zen Workplace

If this sounds like your business, you’re not alone. Over time, many successful show-runners find that the healthy culture they desire becomes more and more elusive.

Part of the misunderstanding comes from the fact that companies don’t really have “cultures” in the traditional sense. People’s dress, their demographic backgrounds, religious and political beliefs and entertainment preferences, for example, may be integral parts of the culture of a town or city, but they bear surprisingly little on workplace satisfaction and productivity.

RELATED: Why Going Goal-Mad Hurts Productivity and Morale

Company culture, as defined by Borysenko, is what you get when you add up the skills, tendencies, and work styles of all a company’s leaders and employees together with the mission and values of the organization.

Viewed this way a company’s culture isn’t something that can be built from the ground up; before they can make any progress toward cultural goals, business leaders must first make the effort to analyze and understand what motivates each of their employees and how they can best function as a team. If you’re a leader at a small company this often happens automatically, but as the business grows and employees are more distanced from the top, assessing their skills and personalities must become an institutional exercise or it won’t happen at all.

A second trapping business owners stumble into when trying to build a positive work culture is that they misunderstand the roles that people, policies and perks play in creating workplace satisfaction. Many startups tend toward the popularized versions of happy workplaces, the “Silicon Valley” model, that features beer fridges and ball pits amongst a slew of gratuitous gimmicks that might seem more at home in Wonka’s candy factory.

But such side benefits are unimportant compared with someone’s day-to-day work environment, and the best perks in the world may be small consolation to an employee who works on an otherwise dysfunctional team.

“Don’t always believe what you see from the outside in because usually there’s a lot more going on when you start to look under the hood,” said Borysenko. “I’ve never met a person who would turn down a beer fridge, but people don’t build emotional relationships with beer fridges. They build them with each other.”

RELATED: How ‘Cool’ Perks Land Business Owners in Hot Water

A third problem is guidance. Many business owners give only negative feedback, believing their employees understand that if they hear nothing about how they’re doing their jobs, they must be doing them right. Still others may understand the value of a positive culture but refuse meaningfully participate in its creation, signaling to their employees that efforts to treat them well as individuals aren’t to be taken seriously.

Culture Starts With Leadership

Creating a positive business culture means treating the people in it as individuals, empowering them to tackle their jobs in a way that fits their work styles, and convincing them their contributions are appreciated and valued.

That won’t happen on its own. It starts with talking about your culture, but that’s not where it stops. Here’s what we recommend:

  • Clearly state your values. Define for yourself and your team what your business culture should be.
  • Talk with leaders at your company one-on-one. Request honest feedback on your values and ask then to describe how they could promote them in their departments and teams on a daily basis.
  • Discuss with each new hire the expectation of upholding your values and seek feedback at regular intervals.
  • Be a living example. No set of values, no matter how righteous, can work absent full adoption by company leaders.

You Can’t Buy Your Employees Happiness; They Should Buy Yours

Getting to know your people is a basic tenant of leadership. Owners who take the time to check in with employees, who ask about their families and speak with them on a personal level will have a much greater chance of successfully communicating their values and having them take root. Remember that publicly acknowledging their contributions is the best reward you can give.

It’s time for business leaders to do more than play at creating positive workplaces. They all know the benefits, but realizing them means building a healthy culture, not simply buying one.

Karlyn Borysenko is the principal of Zen Workplace. You can learn more about how to develop your workplace culture by visiting her website, www.zenworkplace.com.

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