How Company Culture & Happy Employees Go Hand in Hand (Episode 16)

March 1, 2018

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Darcy Grabenstein: Hello from SmartLinx Solutions! The topic of today's podcast is how company culture and happy employees go hand in hand. Our guest today is Kris Boesch, CEO and founder of Choose People, a company that transforms company cultures, increases employee happiness, and boosts the bottom line. Over the past decade, Kris has researched and tested in a variety of workplaces innovative concepts and tangible tools to create empowering contexts in which teams thrive. Kris, thank you so much for joining us today.

Kris Boesch: Darcy, thank you so much for having me.

DG: Our pleasure. Can you tell us about the Choose People 360-degree culture audit? I know that changing company culture doesn't happen overnight, so I understand you use five distinct steps in order to achieve this. Could you run through those for us?

KB: Yeah, so our culture audit basically starts with a diagnostic that we created, step one if you will, because it is five steps. The first step is a diagnostic to really find out if your employees are feeling good about coming to work. It's something that we created over 1,000 hours of research with the Industrial Organizational Psychology Department at Colorado State University. Again, we literally wanted to measure do your employees feel good — this emotional piece — feel good about coming to work? We did find that, bar none, when your people feel good about coming to work, there's all these different business outcomes as a result, and we can jump into a little bit more of that later.

DG: Sure.

KB: The diagnostic piece, it measures the eight factors within your organization that have your employees feeling good about coming to work. It tells me when I'm working with an organization where to start. Where are you having success? We can do appreciative inquiry and expand on that. What are some challenges and struggles? The second step is actually where the gold mine is, and that is our feedback form process. The survey tells us what's going on and where it's going on, but it's the feedback forms that tell us why. That's one of the things that I think often gets missed, is people will do employee satisfaction surveys or employee engagement surveys, and they'll get this litmus test of where they're at, but they don't have clarity on why they're there.

DG: Exactly.

KB: There's a lot of assumptions that get made. There's a lot of pointing fingers that happen. There's a lot of chaos that can happen if you don't really get to the heart of why are we successful in these areas, and why are we struggling in these. Also in that process, we're able to capture, from the team, their ideas and suggestions for solutions because if anyone's aware of some of the boundaries that they're up against, it's them — some of the realities.

Then, our third step, we work with teams to co-create a road map and a timeline of the most key initiatives that are going to have the most meaningful impact in creating the culture that they need in that organization. In many cases, it is creating an extraordinary workplace culture if they're at a good spot. The clients that I tend to have are either those who are like "We're good, but we want to be off-the-hook extraordinary." I would have to say, Darcy, if I had to guess anything, your clients — the fact that they're using SmartLinx tells me that either they're in that place of "We're good, but we want to be off-the-hook," or they are in that extraordinary place, which again, high five!

We do occasionally have those clients that they're in that toxic, horrible, Evel Knievel place. You know, it's one of those where we have a different starting point, and so that road map of initiatives looks a little bit different. Then we really focus on implementation. We focus on accountability and making sure there's follow-through, and then we benchmark progress. That's kind of the whole kit and caboodle.

DG: Sounds good! As you mentioned, at SmartLinx we develop workforce management software and often we're up against management that resists change, especially when it comes to new technology. My question to you is, how do you create a company culture that's conducive to change?

KB: Darcy, I'm going to speak specifically to software because there's a lot of different changes that organizations need to create and make, and there's some general rules around how you make change effective within an organization. Number one, which again I'm sure many of your clients are aware of, is speaking to the why, speaking to the purpose. The challenge with software specifically — and this actually is the case with other types of change as well — the reason why there's so much push back is because people feel stupid. When they start using your software, they don't know what they're doing. They've never used it before. They don't know that Control-X does this, and they get frustrated.

If you think about it, you have this old guard, or the experienced guard if you will, which includes management, and they're the go-to people. They're the people who know the insides and outs of how everything works, and you're basically turning their world upside down, saying, "You know what? All that knowledge that you've earned and learned is not useful anymore. Now you're on the same playing field as all the rest of the staff who have to learn this system, who don't know what goes first and what goes second."

So there's a piece where what I find in order to get software effectively implemented within an organization is there has to be a huge painting of the vision of what's going to be possible when we get to the other side of grunting through this, and the reality of we are going to be grunting through this. There's got to be some honesty around. This won't be easy, it's going to be hard, and management, we're leaning on you to help us carry the torch of this vision. We know it's not going to be easy for you either, and your teams are going to grumble, and it's OK to let them kvetch a little bit. In fact, let's have some sessions where people just get to be like, "This stinks!" but then they can also say, "Hey, guess what I learned? I learned this shortcut yesterday," and they can pass those along to one another. That's one of the things I would say around change, specifically within software. I think that's why there's such a big barrier.

DG: Now, you're talking in terms of management. Also, what about for the line staff who's actually using the technology? I think maybe they might be afraid that they would be displaced by the technology when, in fact, it's just making their jobs easier.

KB: You have to directly speak to fears. If that is the fear, then you have to speak to it directly and be like, "Hey, we get that some of you might be concerned; like, oh, once this software, once we're all fluent in this, we'll need fewer people." You know what? If that's true, say that's true, and say, "But we have no intention of getting rid of our best people who can then promote to other positions because now we don't need as many people in these roles."

You just have to be honest about it. There is an honesty. Employees aren't clueless, and so if they know that the ultimate intention is to reduce cost by reducing staff, you have to speak to that. You have to name it. If it's not true, if it really is just to make their lives easier, again, you have to really paint that picture in as much detail as possible, where things are going to take you half as long, and you're going to get to focus on the work of the work, instead of dealing with the petty, yada, yada, yadas, whatever that looks like and say, "You know how you all used to complain about having to dot these I's and cross these T's? Well, this system will do that for us, so we get to focus on the work that's important."

DG: You mentioned accountability before, and that happens to be another byproduct of our technology, that it helps make staff more accountable. Again, how do you create a culture of accountability?

KB: Accountability is a really unique one, Darcy. When we're working with clients, it's often one of the things we hear, "We need our team to be more accountable." I think there are software solutions that help, but I do think there's a mindset that's mission critical, that supports the software, if you will, and that is one of the biggest challenges to accountability. If you think about it, if you go to and you type in –

DG: I'm there a lot!

KB: Right? You and I both; trying to find some good words. If you type in there "hold accountable," the very first thing that will come up is "to place blame for wrongdoing." When you think about that, and if you're in management you're leading a team, when you go to your team and you say, "We need to hold people accountable. We need more accountability." Your team is like "Ugh, really?!" No one's pump-fisting, excited about it, like "Let's do more of that!" They're concerned about micromanagement; they're concerned you don't trust them. It's not where people get excited, but if you come to your team and you're like, "Listen, we need more accountability, and what I mean by that is that we all need to be count-on-able."

DG: What was that? Count-on-able? Oh, I like that!

KB: Right? It's a change of wording, but it really is what you're wanting. That's what people want from one another — period — that they work with, where I can count on you. I can count that when you say you're going to make it happen, you're going to make it happen, and that if things arise, you're going to let me know, "Hey, I couldn't make it happen, but I can make it by this date," or "I need help," or "I need another piece of the puzzle," but we're going to stay in communication about it. If you're saying, "This is my ball and I'm running with it," I can count on you for that. I think everyone would like to perceive themselves as being someone who is count-on-able. I do a whole workshop with teams that are working on accountability, but that's one of the first things I look at.

The other thing around accountability that's mission critical, that I see often as a barrier, is this using time poverty as a scapegoat. It's actually a social epidemic where people are like, "Oh, I'm too busy. I'm so busy." They're like, "Hey, did you get that done?" "Oh, I was so busy." You'll hear managers say it, where they'll say, "Oh, I've got a zillion things to do," or "There's not enough hours in the day." It's one of those things that if you're saying that, your team is a reflection of you. It is the ultimate scapegoat because if you're saying that and they come to you with the same excuse, you're going to relate. It's going to resonate because you're like, "Yeah, that's my scapegoat, too."

If there's this reality of, listen, I get to choose how — like if there is one equalizer, it's all that we have, 24 hours in a day, 7 days a week. Again, what am I going to prioritize? What am I going to choose to spend my time on? I can't be a productive procrastinator. I can't be a time optimist. At some point, there is a checking of one's self around your choices in time. So that's the other big barrier that I see with accountability. One is people's mindset around, oh, man, they're going to stick it to us, and then the other is, really, this time poverty issue.

DG: Kris, there's a lot of talk these days about employee engagement. Your vision of happy employees sounds like a great concept to me, but is there actually ROI behind it? Could you give us some details?

KB: Yeah, certainly, Darcy. There's a huge return on investment of having happy employees. It's something that I speak to often because if you're a CFO and you're listening to this, you might be like, "Kris, really? Culture just seems like kumbaya and rainbows and butterflies. It's nice to have, but it's not a have to have." What I can tell you is that if you have an employee that's making $40,000 a year and that employee is unhappy, they will cost you at least an additional $39,000 to your bottom line.

Now, if that same employee is happy, they will contribute an additional $21,000 to your bottom line. So you're basically looking at a 1.5 multiple of someone's salary if you can get them from unhappy to happy. It's one of those things where, again, any good CFO is also analytical and is like, "That's nice, lady, that you shared all those numbers. Where's that come from?" There's actually a document that you can download for free off of our website that shows you the calculations of what goes into that, and then all the research that backs up those numbers.

What I'll tell you, I think the most interesting of all the different rates — we know that happy employees give better customer service. We know they have less absenteeism. There's all these things that we do know and that we can put numbers behind, but the one that most people don't know and that is quite interesting is that happy employees commit 26 percent fewer mistakes, twenty-six percent! It's one of those things when you think about what's the last big mistake your organization had. It's not one of those things where I think an unhappy employee is out to get your company, they're intentionally trying to hurt you. The fact of the matter is they simply care less. They don't pay attention to those details. They don't dot the I's, they don't cross the T's because you know what? They're just there for a paycheck or whatever reasoning they put behind it. So that's one of the factors that goes into that financial piece as well.

DG: Hand in hand with happy employees, as you know in the long-term care industry, turnover is really high. What would you say are some of the best ways to not just create happy employees but keep employees?

KB: All the work I do, Darcy, kind of falls under three pillars. Whenever I'm keynoting at a conference, it's one of those things where I'm like, "Listen, if there's one thing you can take away" or if you need a mantra, or something to tattoo, or to keep front and center to remember of how do you create an extraordinary workplace culture — again, this has a lot to do with the retention piece, with keeping happy employees — is at the end of the day people want to feel like they're known, that you know them as people. You care about them as people; you care about them as individuals, so where they feel like they're known, that they matter, that their contribution matters, that they go above and beyond that matters, that if they slack, it matters, and lastly, that they're included, that there's this sense of belonging, there's this sense of shared identity, and this sense of tribe.

There's this piece where, again, anytime you've got a team — and you can think like, "How well do I know my people? Do they know that their contribution matters? Am I acknowledging them when they go above and beyond? Am I supporting them and touching base with them when they're struggling, whether that's on the character side or the competency side? Does my team have a sense of camaraderie, and we're all in it to win it, and we're all rowing in the same direction, and we're all on the same team wearing the same jersey?"

One of the things that — just to give your listeners — and I'm all about tangible tools. Let me just go ahead and give you one that's incredibly impactful for the inclusion piece because that can be the piece where people kind of are like, "OK, I feel like I know how to do appreciation; maybe I need to do it better, but I know what to do." Sometimes the inclusion piece, people struggle with a little bit more.

DG: Right.

KB: One of the things that I absolutely swear by is talking about the money. There's a piece where there's organizations that talk about open-book financials, but your team likely doesn't know, especially your front-line staff — it depends what industry you're in — but likely doesn't know how to read a P&L, nor should they; it's not part of their job. However, you do want them to understand how the organization makes, saves and spends money. So the way to do that is to literally go to the bank and get 100 one-dollar bills, get your team in a room, pull out a flip chart or whiteboard, list out your income streams and how you get to $100. If you have a percentage, let's say 12 percent of your income comes from X, then that would be $12, twelve one-dollar bills. You explain how it comes to $100, and then you go through your expenses. You go through — because again, if I'm an employee and I'm making —let's say I'm making $15 an hour, and I know that my co-worker, because we talk, my co-worker is making $17 an hour, and I know that the company is charging x amount; let's say $200. I'm thinking, "Are you kidding me? They are making crazy money off my blood, sweat and tears." Because they're just doing the math, but they don't have all the math because they haven't run a company before.

This is an opportunity for you to share: "OK, here's the cost of marketing, here's the cost of insurance, here's all our expenses," and the very last expense that you speak to is your payroll and your work comp, and your benefits, and everything kind of goes into one lump sum. As you're doing this, you're literally handing it out to people in the room. You hand someone — you're my marketing. You hand them $5 for 5 percent. The person who receives the payroll is going to be one of the biggest wads of cash of that $100, and there's this awareness from the team of like, "Oh, we actually get a big piece of the pie." Then, what you can do is talk with your team which numbers they can impact and which they can't, whether it's on how they can increase revenue or how, again, they can impact expenses. I used to do this — so we didn't talk about this and we don't need to go into it, but prior to this, I did this at a moving company.

I used to run a moving company. Whatever your thought bubble is of a mover, your stereotype, it's actually probably pretty accurate. I'd have my crew sitting in a circle and we would talk through this, and light bulbs would go off, and awarenesses would go off, and every single time afterwards they'd be like, "Hey, boss lady, I was thinking we could do things this way or do things that way," and it got them engaged in this sense of like, "I'm in the inner circle. I now understand the financial workings of our company in a way where I can contribute to, again, either help save money or make money." I would explain, "Here's what we have at the end of the day. That's our profit, and that's if we don't screw up. When you ask for raises, and you ask for uniforms, and you ask for a new truck (again, this was a moving company) that's where that money comes from. If we can increase that money, we can increase all these things that you want."

DG: Kris, I have to ask you, after this exercise, do they have to hand back the dollar bills?

KB: They do, yes. Are you kidding? They would have a fist fight on the person that got the payroll. Are you kidding? They'd be like. Yes, they do turn back in the $100, yes.

DG: Another term that I know that you use is "emotional intimacy." At first glance, to me, it sounds a little touchy-feely or even inappropriate for the workplace. What exactly is emotional intimacy in the workplace, and how do you go about creating that?

KB: Darcy, it's interesting. The emotional intimacy, I either get folks that are like, "Ohhh," or they're like "Ewww." One of the things I would say is, again, if you're the person who's the advocate in your organization for workplace culture and you're like, "Kris, there is no way I can go back to my team and use the term ‘emotional intimacy.’ They will hang me up to dry." Use the word "camaraderie."

DG: That works.

KB: Right because, ultimately, you're talking about the social super glue between people where there is that sense of emotional health and safety and support and having each others’ backs, and again, feeling where you're known, where you matter, and that you're included. Ultimately, that's what goes into that emotional intimacy and that connection. I think we all know someone who maybe makes significantly less money than they could elsewhere and if you ask them why they're there they'll be like, "Because of who I work with and what my company's up to in the world, and the respect I receive, and the role that I get to play," all those different pieces that go into it.

It's a good question. I never mind when people push back on the emotional intimacy. I also don't mind when they push back on the happiness because it really is — and I actually love the term — joy. Joy actually has a little bit more depth to me than happiness, but happiness is better for the whole SEO world. It really is visceral. We know what happiness feels like for ourselves. We know what it looks like on other people. We can point to it. When someone says to me, "How do I know if my employees are happy?" Usually, I would say, "You know when they are." If you don't know that they are, then there's probably something to be concerned about because it's one of those things where we can tell the difference between a real smile and a flat smile. It's in the crinkles next to the eyes. We can fake a smile and we can see it from a mile away.

It's one of those things where engagement is — it's not a bad term, but I couldn't necessarily tell you what that feels like or what that looks like. I think the intention of it is really good, but when you look at that — if your people feel good about coming to work, they go home and they're better parents, they're better spouses, they're better citizens, and there's just this huge emotional return on investment, not only for your company but for your entire community. Satisfaction's a low bar. People rarely even use that term anymore, employee satisfaction, because it's just a low bar.

DG: Interesting. I have another term that I'd like you to explain. You refer to "interdependency awareness." Are you basically talking about team building, or is there more to it? I know that you refer to breaking down silos. We literally just wrapped up a webinar, and almost all of the participants had some experience, some silos in their organization, so we know it still exists in long-term care. Could you tell me about this concept?

KB: Yeah, for sure. Interdependency awareness really is having every single person on the team understanding how important their individual role is and who it impacts in the organization. That's the first piece of it. There's kind of a self-awareness piece. Then there's an other-awareness piece. The other-awareness is understanding everyone else in the organization — and it might be department; it may not necessarily be individuals — the departments’ roles within the organization, how they impact the other departments. The interdependency is really seeing the whole kit and caboodle put together and all the inner workings.

The reason why it's so mission critical is one, there's a piece of, you know, if you choose not to show up 100 percent, it impacts this entire system. The other reason why it's mission critical is that you'll have, in those silos, people will be in their silos and they'll think, "Oh, if I just do my job well, I'm doing a good job." There's a missing there because if the company is falling apart while you're doing magnificent with your little piece of the puzzle, it's not going to matter, but if you have this awareness of where you plug in and how it impacts things, you're going to see ways you can improve your work in ways that are going to help the other pieces of the company.

Usually we end up doing — there's a bunch of different exercises we do to get that awareness. The other thing is it keeps finger-pointing and that whole culture of comparison, where we work harder than they do, or like what we do is so much harder. Sometimes you'll have that between staff, and once they have this awareness of "Oh, that's what you do, and that's what you're up to in the world through the work that you do within our company, and oh, that's how that impacts me, and I need to make some requests of you because of how you impact me, and by the way, who I impact, I need to ask them, what could I be doing to make their job easier." It's that whole inner-related, interconnected awareness of the entire system versus just my little piece of the puzzle and thinking, "Oh, I can just shut my door, look at my computer, get all my stuff done, clock out for the day, and call it good." It's like no, "What we're up to in the world — our mission, if you will — requires all of us. There does have to be an awareness of how we all fit together."

DG: Sure, that makes sense. Kris, as you probably know, our SmartLinx technology helps keep managers and staff connected through mobile communication and through other means. What you focus on is not how you do it but what to say and how you convey it. Could you talk a little bit more about being candid without being cruel? I might call that constructive criticism. Could you talk to that?

KB: Yeah, for sure. Darcy, I tend to — similar to accountability, constructive criticism has some heavy baggage that goes with it. If someone comes to you and says, "I want to give you some constructive criticism."

DG: You cringe.

KB: You're never like, "Yay! I've been waiting for this!" There's a — and I tend to talk about kind, candid and constructive communication, but what's in that is again, I mentioned earlier, you have people on your team that you're always evaluating character and competency. Not only are you evaluating it, you're supporting them within those facets. One of the things that I see within organizations that say "Oh, we're struggling with accountability" is this walking on eggshells and triangulation where I'm telling someone else about a third person, which, by the way, is gossip, and then it somehow gets back to them, and then there's hurt feelings. It just — it can create so much drama and, again, there's not the focus on the work of the work.

One of the things that I always say is mission critical — to kind of, again, get this kind, candid and constructive communication — is to really think about, "OK, so if I'm a stand for the success of this person and of my working relationship with this person, I wouldn't be willing to let their credibility slowly deteriorate around something that's a blind spot for them. To give you an example, there's a gentleman in a company who literally got fired because he smelled, and he had bad breath, he had bad body odor, and to this day he doesn't know why he got fired. He was told that he wasn't a good fit. His co-workers didn't really want to be in close proximity with him. For sure, it was the manager’s responsibility to reach out to him, but in really high-functioning workplace environments and high-functioning cultures, the entire team is a stand for one another's success, and someone would've approached him and would've been like, "Hey, dude. I think there's something you ought to know. I would want to know if it was me, but you might want to consider using a different deodorant."

It's one of those things where you come from a place of caring. The intention is from a place of caring. You wouldn't be like, "You smell!" There's a thing of, like, "I would want someone to tell me, and so I just wanted to let you know." What happens is kind of this unkind niceness where, again, we're not going to — we're so nice, but we'll fire you. It's heartbreaking, and this happens a lot where versus instead of being like, "Hey, I don't know if you're aware, but when you use that kind of language and get that angry in meetings, I know your intention is to show passion, but it causes everyone to shut down."

I do this whole training and it's also a chapter in the book, but how to communicate in funky town, and like you said what to say and how to say it. There's a whole piece around doing self-reflection for yourself, starting there, doing some mental preparation, inviting the person into the conversation, and then actually having the conversation, which is actually the easiest part once you've done the first three pieces. It's one of those where if your focus is on having a better working relationship and, again, supporting that person and what they're up to in the world, you really can't go wrong. That intention piece is so critical.

DG: That was a great example. Kris, you just mentioned your book, so I'm sure you won't mind telling our listeners about your Culture Works book. Could you also shed a little bit of light on that culture assessment, too?

KB: Yeah, sure thing. Thanks, Darcy! I wrote and published Culture Works this past summer. It's had endorsements by Tony Hseih from Zappos, Marshall Goldsmith, Shana Core, Brian Tracy. It's now starting to be used in universities across the country, around really supporting, actually, all different types of students, so that when they come out they can participate in supporting creating an extraordinary workplace culture. It really is a how-to book. That is the entire intention. It is full of what I call "Action Jacksons," and tangible tools. It's like, here's the concept, now go apply it; go implement it. We even have a workbook that goes with it, so that if you wanted to have your management or leadership team do a book club setting with it, you can.

We also have a book club format that you can use that goes with it, which also gives you access to me, so that if your team is struggling with a concept, or how to apply it, or they have a question, they can submit that as well as get additional tools and case studies, and a culture assessment is included in that. Again, that first piece, that diagnostic piece that we do with the culture audit, there's a single assessment in there so that you, the reader, can get a sense of what is — based off of this diagnostic, how do you feel about your workplace culture in these eight factors?

DG: Thank you. This sounds very interesting. Kris, I have to thank you for sharing your workplace insights with us today. Also, thanks to all our listeners who took the time to listen to our podcast. To learn more about how Kris helps businesses, visit If you'd like to learn more about SmartLinx Solutions and our fully integrated suite of workforce management solutions, visit us online at

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