Emotional rescue: building a strong workplace

Building a strong workplace culture requires a lot of work by leadership. The rewards are great, however. It can pull the business through the toughest of times, even a global pandemic. But sincerity must be at the core of every endeavour.

“What it means to be a good person, a moral person, is calculated differently in times of crisis than in ordinary circumstances,” author Jenny Offill once wrote.

Toyota led the world in the development of just-in-time-supply chains in the 1970s to save huge amounts of money storing parts.

There was no longer a need to have expensive storage facilities because globalisation sped up deliveries.

Then a virus came out of a wet market in Wuhan and brutally snapped the supply chains all over the world, and myriad of weaknesses within the just-in-time supply chain model were exposed.

This got me thinking about the frailty of other just-in-time-structures within our organisations, particularly just-in-time-cultures.

Some of these frailties were not so obvious when the virus first hit.

Many people work for shit bosses and shit bosses can’t build good cultures.


1. Because they don’t take the time to learn about their people – to learn the whole story about their people.

Someone’s outside work story is nearly always more important than their inside work story.

2. Hank Williams, the great American country singer, was once asked what the secret to writing great songs was.

“Sincerity,” he replied.

For me, building a powerful culture is much like writing a great song and sincerity lies at its core.

People can smell insincerity from miles away.

Shit bosses are unburdened by sincerity.

3. To build a strong, safe culture, a leader also needs to do lots of focused, emotional labour every day.

That doesn’t happen in all organisations.

Some leaders won’t or can’t do this draining, but essential, work, so when COVID-19 came along the pretend, just-in-time cultures, were incapable of doing all the things that good cultures do in a crisis.

This includes absorbing shocks, holding hands metaphorically and physically, comforting people, protecting everyone within a team and even crying and grieving together because much of the past four months has been about grieving for what we have all lost.

Shared suffering in a good culture breeds teamwork, closeness and camaraderie.

A strong culture is about the right people being led the right way.

But in many organisations, the wrong people were on board, and they were led the wrong way when the shock waves first hit.

Let’s start with the wrong people.

I read a story a few years ago about the recruitment and interviewing of the early lighthouse keepers.

Not only did they have to have their teeth extracted if they were selected for the job, but they needed to go home and tell their wives that they also needed to have all their teeth pulled.

If you were doing the job interviews, I guess your first question to save time was how do you feel about having all your teeth taken out?

This story has always resonated with me.

What would an equivalent set of recruitment questions look like today, to ensure you could always select the best people to help build the best culture.

My favourite recruitment questions include ‘did you have a job at school’, ‘what did your mum teach you’ and ‘what aren’t I going to like about you in six months?’

And the ‘no number seven rule’.

Abolish this numeral as an assessment number when grading applicants to join your team. 

This means you must only give applicants a six or an eight.

Think about it.

We are all in the midst of our first pandemic and for many of us, we are in it with the wrong people, locked inside a culture unable to absorb the shocks and act as an autopilot through the turbulence.

For the record, it won’t get any worse than that if you are a boss, and congratulations if you survived it.

In recent months I’ve spoken to a lot of leaders in a plethora of industries, and I could hear two different and distinct voices.

Voice 1. Those who were energised, not neutralised, by the liberating aspect of solving the avalanche of problems that popped up every day, which necessitated copious improvisation and much thinking on their feet.

(Sleeping was not a problem at night for leaders who spent all day problem solving).

Some people told me they have never slept as soundly.

These leaders all shared lockdown with great teams and strong cultures.

Voice 2. I could acutely hear and feel the panic and distress that manifested itself as inactivity for many other leaders.

They froze.

They were in lockdown inside a just-in-time culture.

So, what was the most useful tool to have in your box when COVID-19 first belted us?

A deeply-rooted, strong-weave, super-resilient culture.

A spirited culture will always be the most powerful strength in your business, though strangely it’s nowhere to be found on your balance sheet.

Please understand that the public get culture immediately.

They get it on sight.

A powerful culture is also the only thing your competitors cannot copy.

Building a formidable culture is a lot like cooking.

It’s one-part creativity, one-part alchemy, and one-part sweat and grunt.

Culture, not technology, brand or marketing, is and always will be, the great challenge for any organisation and every leader.

It is the culture in sports teams and armies and highly profitable companies that wins their battles.

Not all the other stuff that’s thrown at bosses today from gurus and trainers.

A culture that was fed, rather than drained by the turbulence, opportunities, adrenaline, improvisation and fear going on simultaneously in recent months.

What was the most vulnerable type of organisation when the pandemic hit?

One with a just-in-case culture. Think fake tan.

Why? People thought they were protected, and they weren’t.

It was fatal.

Bosses who led organisations with these thin, phoney cultures were like someone planting trees, looking for shade in the middle of a hot day.

It was too late.

What’s a just-in-time-culture? It’s a surface culture. A flimsy bunch of words that don’t mean anything or do anything. A veneer.

A business with a just-in-time culture has all the toys, bells and whistles, and it often looks cool, but its culture is feeble and no one within the organisation really believes in it.

Culture is the DNA of an organisation.

It’s what staff do when the leaders aren’t around, rather than when they are there. Good or bad.

If you build a strong, inclusive culture, you can leave your business without worry.

You can delegate, you can grow, scale and most of all you can confront any challenges, including a pandemic.

Culture is the shared values and standards of the bosses and the staff, but it’s also what’s not said and what’s not written down.

I’m always unnerved by organisations that have all these words written down in pretty mission and vision statements.

These proclamations always seem a lot like works of fiction. They scream ‘look at me, look at me’. Culture is invisible, but it’s felt. It’s a gentle breeze in some organisations, a sort of current that nudges people in the right direction.

It’s a bit like muscle memory in Pilates.

Your body parts go to a place before your instructor tells you to do an action because you have been practising your movements for years. You don’t need to think about it, it just happens.

Culture is caught not taught. By example.

Most importantly, culture is all about selection.

It’s about choosing the right people to join the team and making recruitment the most important ongoing system in the organisation.

The best way to do that is to let the good people who work with you chose other good people to join your team.

Good people want to work with other good people, and as a leader, you should involve everyone in the selection progression, so they all own the process.

When you walk around an organisation and talk to people, they say you should ask everyone to explain the values of the organisation and then if they all share the same voiced positive values then you have a strong culture.


As much as I love words, culture isn’t just words for me. Culture is what people do and how they do it.

It’s how they help, support and respectfully listen to each other, or not. It’s how they hold and help each other and just be with the other members of a team through a crisis.

Team bonds are strengthened in a crisis.

Many bosses were stunned and froze in the early stages of the pandemic and they didn’t panic so much as they just stopped making decisions.

Returning to our lighthouse keepers. Culture is always all about replenishment.

The challenge for all leaders is to build a recruitment process that finds the right people who are willing and able, like the lighthouse keepers, to do whatever it takes to join and then prosper within your organisation.

Here are a few other things I have learned about building a powerful culture.

  1. Nothing good happens quickly. Only bad things happen quickly, and this is why you cannot rapidly build a strong culture.

Build a slow business, not a fast business. Slow businesses last.

You build a strong culture layer by layer. You cannot buy a good culture.

It’s never about the money in this space.

2. Having a real community around you in a pandemic helps heaps.

The Japanese have a concept called Sampo Yoshi.

It says that in a transaction there are three components – buyer, seller and community.

Your community and your culture go lock-step together into a crisis. They are a powerful shield to all things tough. You cannot build a strong community connection without a strong culture.

3. Veneer theory. If you believe that there is a civilised veneer above society, but underneath and in a crisis we all revert to acting like savages, then you will struggle to build a vibrant, strong culture.

Catastrophes bring out the best, not the worst, in people and in teams.

4. If you are tight with money and your emotions, and if you cannot be vulnerable and caring, you will struggle to build a real culture.


Because care is the glue that keeps it all together.

5. As a leader, you need to be either a good teacher or a good example to build a robust culture.

6. Latin writer Publilius Syrus wrote “patience is a remedy for every sorrow”.

I was born bereft of patience and patience is a salient part of the culture formula, so I needed to learn patience to grow strong cultures.

If, like me, you don’t naturally have patience, you need to grow some.

It has been obvious who works for a shit boss in recent months. Under the magnifying glass of the virus many leaders hit a wall. Why? Because in tough times our best and our worst traits and actions are magnified for our staff.

It wasn’t pretty in some organisations.

Building a good culture is like doing a giant jigsaw without the picture on the top of the box.

Sadly, there are no real courses to learn how to build cultures.

It’s also the most creative and rewarding of all the boss activities and the most influential thing a leader can do.

You cannot mandate a good culture or force it to form, and as a boss you cannot outsource it like some companies, such as WeWork, tried to do.

People become super protective of what they have built.

I learnt from the Global Financial Crisis and my life journey, that you have to keep moving. You can’t stop or park your organisation’s growth, nor your development and learning.

A boss is the architect but also the maintenance man of a company culture. Both jobs never stop.

If you are a leader looking for guidance in building a powerful culture, then build real relationships with your people and do the unnecessary for them.

Always be sincere and instead of thinking of staff as employees always think of them as volunteers.

This completely resets the way you treat them and how you speak to them.

Adversity is a time for clarity and a crisis like we are experiencing now is liberating for leaders with strong cultures.

They know their teams will follow them and do whatever it takes to survive and flourish.

They know their team is full of trust and trust is the oil that lubricates the people who are the parts of the engine that drives all organisations.

All stuff-ups inside and outside an organisation are communication failures.

If you have built an open culture, there are a lot fewer communication train- wrecks and the recovery from communication calamities are blameless, painless and quicker.

People are not bruised, so they just move on.

This virus has been good at highlighting the weaknesses and faults of countries and companies, but people who worked in good organisations always know the virus is a tunnel, not a brick wall. 

They know we will pop out the other end. Businesses have a soul and that is the culture of your team.

No changes or progress can occur in an organisation, or in a relationship, without dialogue.

Dialogue flows freely in a company with a good culture because all the channels are open.

People say that you need deep empathy – great emotional intelligence -to build a strong culture.


Someone with great emotional intelligence who is a taker will never build a great culture.

You need to be a leader who has emotional intelligence and is a giver to build a strong culture.

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Chris Hanley

Chris Hanley, OAM is the principal of First National Byron Bay