One of my favorite tasks pre-retirement was participating in new employee orientation. One of the many topics I addressed with them was our organizational culture, our work environment. In talking about this I stressed our commitment to maintaining a positive work environment pointing out that employees are in one of two states of mind overall (recognizing that there will always be some good and bad days) when it comes to work and their job, happy and satisfied or unhappy, maybe even miserable. I would point out further that if they were in that unhappy category, in short order they will be in yet a third category, leaving the organization, perhaps at their own volition, realizing they are not the good fit they thought they were with the Agency, or by their supervisor’s volition who noted less than satisfactory performance, probably related to their being unhappy. I share with them a personal experience of mine being extremely unhappy with the work environment and that I would never wish that on any of our employees. I then go on to share with them, all we do to build and maintain a positive work environment including the twelve steps that follow.


positive work environment is one in which employees feel good about coming to work which in turn, provides the motivation to sustain them throughout the day (Poh, 2015 www.hongkiat.com/blog/positive-working-environment/). Says Poh (2015) “[Work environment includes]… everything that forms part of employees’ involvement with the work itself, such as the relationship with co-workers and supervisors, organizational culture, room for personal development, etc.”. To Poh’s list, I would add the physical environment (structures, layout, appearance, furnishings, and supplies, even climate as in temperature). Within a positive environment there is ongoing transparent and open two-way communication, focused on training and development, frequent and timely positive reinforcement of good work, a spirit of cooperation and collaboration (teamwork), and a balance between work and personal life (if an employee feels he/she is ignoring personal/family life he/she will experience diminished work satisfaction).


Productivity is higher in a positive work environment. Employees are 38% more likely to perform at their best in a positive work environment (Poh, 2015 https://www.hongkiat.com/blog/positive-working-environment/.

 Employees are more welcome to accept criticism (positive feedback). The ill effects of a negative work environment can be avoided such as frequent conflict, poor performance, a CYA mentality, high stress, increased sick time, worker’s comp claims, absenteeism and union activity.


If you want to build, maintain and grow a positive work environment in your workplace follow these steps:

1.     Acquaint yourself with the organization’s sacred documents, most especially its Mission (purpose) Statement and to the extent they exist, and Vision and Values Statement and Strategic Plan). Introduce them to your staff (and in particular, that Mission Statement), making certain they understand them, understand you are committed to them, understand you want and need their commitment to them, and that they will he held accountable for acting in a manner consistent with them. If your organization does not have all these documents, volunteer your services to your supervisor to assist in their development (if it is in your decision making capacity, involve co-workers and direct reports in any such development). Of all the sacred documents, the mission statement is the most important. It is the statement of purpose or reason for existence and should be the driving and organizing force behind all decision making. If there is no mission statement then develop one for your department. You cannot do this independently of the organization. You will need to consult with your boss (and he/she might need to do the same up the chain of command).

2.     Always remember that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” (Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People 1989). Covey’s intent in repeating the words “main thing” three times is to maintain your focus on the main thing, that which is most important, your purpose, intent or goal, and not to be distracted by other things going on around you. I particularly like the way David Cottrell in “Monday Morning Leadership” (2002, page 36) applies the “main thing” concept to leadership development. I regularly use Cottrell’s approach in my consulting work, as I did at work. 

The usefulness of ‘The Main Thing” strategy is using the agency Mission Statement as the foundation for developing a Main Thing Statement for each department answering the question “what is the Main Thing our department does to support and realize the Organization’s Mission. And that can be taken a step further by answering the question “what is the Main Thing each staff member does to support the Department’s Main Thing in supporting the organization’s Mission. For more about the main Thing and its use and usefulness check out the Covey and Cottrell references in the above paragraph or Chapter 12 in my book “Being a Supervisor 1.0” https://www.amazon.com/Being-Supervisor-1-0-Handbook-Experienced/dp/1785357921 

3.     Provide a safe and clean work environment and keep it in good repair. Whether the building is brand spanking new, real old, or something in between, it should be well kept, assuring a safe workplace that is aesthetically pleasing and respectful of the dignity of staff and clients/customers. If employees feel respected they will be more productive. Caveat – The current atmosphere (coronavirus circa March 2020) around the world brings new and urgent meaning to “safe and clean work environment”. New advisories come out daily. Follow those guidelines, especially as they pertain to distance, sanitizing, physical contact, hand washing, use of leave time. Encourage staff who can, to work remotely from home and provide them the tools to do so. Be a role model of calm, encourage self-care (yours and theirs).

4.     Provide employees clear work direction. Review job descriptions at least annually (I always reviewed them at the time of employees’ annual performance reviews). Tell employees that at any time during the year, if they feel their job has changed significantly, they should ask to have their job description reviewed. When giving work direction be specific as to your expectations such as volume, and deadline for completion. Be clear on work schedule.

5.     Provide employees working tools and supplies to do their job. Budget for upgrades and replacements e.g. computers, phones, copiers. You cannot expect employees to have a project done requiring the use of a copier when the office copier is constantly breaking down. If there is a variety of software versions used by employees there could be difficulty sharing files. Provide employees access to educational/training opportunities that will help them maintain and improve their knowledge and skills for their current and future positions.

6.     Establish rules of conduct. There likely will be rules of conduct in the employee handbook. If so review them with employees, make certain they understand them and be clear they will be held accountable for compliance. I include here making certain they are aware of the Agency Grievance Policy, assure them of our No Retaliation Policy and encourage them to use the Grievance policy if there is something causing them job dissatisfaction. Add additional rules of conduct for your staff (being certain they do not conflict with the organization’s rules) that you feel will enhance the work environment/organizational culture. Some rules I feel are important would include

·        No yelling at staff, visitors or clients

·        Treat everyone with respect (even if they do not treat you that way)

·        Admit mistakes

·        Ask for help when needed

·        Offer help when asked and even when not asked

·        Avoid gossip

·        Tell the truth

Be consistent in enforcing workplace rules and very importantly, avoid favoritism. Publicly acknowledge staff compliance and privately address noncompliance.

7.     Realize you are their boss, not their friend. Especially if you are promoted from within, but also if you were hired from outside the organization, remain acutely aware that you are not one of the guys/gals. As a staff member you were one of the passengers on the bus. With the promotion to supervisor, you are now the driver. You are responsible for getting the bus to its destination. You are responsible for the bus, the passengers and anything in the bus. You need to be loyal to the bus company, so no gripe sessions with your employees, siding with them against the brass (you are part of the brass now). Remember this. It is nice to be liked and you can be liked. But if you place so much importance on being liked that you do not consistently treat employees fair and hold them accountable for their job, you won’t be respected. It is more important to be respected than to be liked.

8.     Involve others in decision-making. For additional resources on Decision-Making see chapter 12 in my book “Being a Supervisor 1.0“.

9.     Welcome conflict as a way for the organization to learn, grow and strengthen teamwork. For additional resources on Conflict Management see chapter 5 in my book “Being a Supervisor 1.0.

10. Do not absolutely prohibit personal problems from the workplace. This one may be confusing. For years I told staff that if they were having personal problems, they should leave them home. Eventually I learned such was an impossible. Encourage employees to maintain a balance between their work and personal life. But understand that what happens outside of work can and will weigh on employees minds while at work, leading to distraction and decreased performance. Encourage and allow employees to take time to address personal problems, connect them to the organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if there is one. If there is not, suggest the employer offer one. Be supportive but also be clear on expectations and limits to your understanding – the job still needs to get done.

11. Have a suggestion box. Invite suggestions about the job, the organization and the workplace. Encourage signing suggestions so that you can speak directly to the person for further information. Consider publishing suggestions and responses. In some of my work settings I would publish a monthly list of suggestions (sometimes editing language for appropriateness and to protect identities) along with my response and always explaining my reasoning. The traditional box in the break room works well. Increasingly, electronic suggestion box systems instead of the traditional box or in additions to it have been introduced.

12. Be a person of integrity and expect your staff to have integrity. One who has integrity tells the truth, walks the talk, admits mistakes, does what he/she says he/she will do, does the right thing when it is easy and when it is hard, when being watched and not being watched (Who knows when you are being watched?). Honesty is the best policy. If you are less than honest, even for good intentions, you need to keep track of what you said to whom- ever get caught in covering up a lie? If you always tell the truth, you don’t have to worry about being found out and you don’t have to keep track of your lies. Why is integrity important? It creates a trust relationship between you and those who work for and with you. The opposite of trust is mistrust and suspicion. If you are not trusted, you will be second guessed. People will start taking sides. The work environment will be weakened. Integrity can be recovered but it will be a long and painful process. So make it your personal mantra to do the right thing. And expect and hold employees accountable for doing the right thing.


If these 12 Steps sound reasonable to you, try them. Whether you are new to your supervisor position or a long term incumbent, consistently implementing them will help to build a positive work environment where there is none, maintain an already positive environment and further grow that already positive work environment.

For more information about positive work environment read chapter 12 in my book “Being a Supervisor 1.0”

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