Building a Better Workplace

Building a Better Workplace

Want to know the secret to building a better, more creative workplace? Just Google it. You don’t need your browser to get the answer, though. Rather, listen to Creighton faculty who time after time when asked about workplace excellence pointed to the search engine giant founded 18 years ago and now worth $500 billion and counting.

Creighton business professor Lance Frazier, PhD, points to a Google in-house study that shows its most creative teams were ones that felt “psychologically safe” to challenge each other and push boundaries. Those who suppressed dissension? Not so much.

Communication studies professor Erika Kirby, PhD, mentions Google’s lack of offices and the meals the company provides employees. Psychology professor Joshua Fairchild, PhD, cites Google’s arcades, games and exercise centers to show how a laid-back environment can spur big ideas.

“Google comes to mind because it’s so salient,” Fairchild says. “We see how creative they are. In general, a lot of technology companies, or those that deliver services online, tend to be pretty creative.”

Henry Ford might not recognize today’s workplaces.

“If you think about the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the assembly line, there was not a lot of independence,” Frazier says. “You did your job, and did it really well, and that was it. Now, that’s not the way we work.”

But Google isn’t the only company stretching the boundaries for innovative ways to spur creativity, inclusiveness, trust and other traits that will make their workplaces hum.

Fairchild references online shoe and clothing store, which has flattened its hierarchy, doing away with boss and managerial titles. Consulting firm IDEO, meanwhile, is well known for tackling challenges using a wide range of perspectives — such as asking a barefoot runner to pitch in when designing new Nike shoes.

Locally, Creighton faculty have worked with Union Pacific, Gallup, N.P. Dodge, Baird Holm, HDR and others trying to make conscious efforts toward out-of-the-box thinking.

It’s not enough just to hire creative people.

“That’s a common pitfall a lot of companies run into,” Fairchild says. “‘If we hire the right people, if we hire creative people, then we’re going to get creative products.’ But that … doesn’t really stop at the hiring process. There’s a lot of research out there, and a lot of literature I’ve studied, that suggest … cultivating a climate that encourages people to work together is just as important.”

Creighton faculty don’t have all the answers for building a better workplace. But Creighton University Magazine talked to four who can address creativity, generations in the workplace, psychological safety and trust, and promoting work-life balance.

Let’s get building.


Want to see a creativity boom in your office? Hire a difficult individual with a great idea then watch him intimidate the rest of your employees into silence.

OK, maybe that doesn’t sound like the best of ideas. But it works for some companies, discovered Joshua Fairchild, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Creighton, when he studied 55 design teams. He was investigating factors that influence creativity and innovation in the workplace. Specifically, Fairchild focused on two elements:

  • Participative safety — that is, when a work atmosphere allows employees to feel it’s OK to express opinions or pitch ideas with which others might disagree
  • Task conflict — when there is disagreement or difference of opinion about how to approach or perform a job, and the work team focuses on how to best tackle the task or tasks (without getting personal)

Fairchild says both need to exist in order for team creativity to flourish.

But his most unexpected finding was that teams could be creative despite being low on participative safety and task conflict. What gives? Most often, the presence of a single team member with a great idea — but who is so disagreeable, the rest of the team clams up.

“There was one particularly disagreeable individual who made everyone else really uncomfortable and kind of dominated the discussion,” Fairchild says, “but who happened to have really creative ideas. People don’t feel comfortable when they disagree with this person. Their ideas are shut down, and shut down in unpleasant ways. And there’s not much conflict. No one disagrees with this person. It just so happens this person’s ideas are original and effective.”

Someone, perhaps, like Steve Jobs, says Fairchild.

“He was not known for being nice or likeable or easy to get along with, but he had brilliant, creative ideas.”

That might have worked for Apple, but for most companies it would spell doom.

“I don’t think in most teams it’s a recipe for long-term success,” Fairchild says. “It might get a product for particular tasks, but team success is also defined by viability: How long are you willing to work together for the future?”

A company is better off making sure all team members have a voice — while instilling participative safety and task conflict in tandem to spur team creativity.

But that’s easier said than done.

“Dealing with creative ideas or solving creative problems, you’re dealing with ambiguity, doing something not done before. It inherently can be kind of scary, and it’s easy to retreat to a comfortable position. It’s easier to rely on the things you know are going to work, especially in a profit-driven organization. You don’t want to be on the chopping block if you suggest or put forth an idea that doesn’t work.”

That’s where supervisors can play a vital role by showing themselves open to suggestions and criticism. Employees will see that “if a leader can get criticized without being offended, it says I can do this, too.”

Some companies get that. “From what I’ve seen, anecdotally, more companies seem to place emphasis on psychological safety and on making people feel comfortable and saying every opinion matters and we want to hear from everyone,” Fairchild says.

“Less emphasis, I think, is placed on encouraging people to debate and disagree.”

Generations in the Workplace

There’s often a roll of the eyes when Leah (Skovran) Georges, PhD, BA’06, assistant professor in Creighton’s Interdisciplinary EdD program, gives people the stat. Maybe even a gasp or two.

The average age of employees in a supervisory role, she tells audiences, is 33. That means oft-maligned millennials are managing their elders — baby boomers.

“They roll their eyes and say, ‘Is this happening?’” says Georges. “I gave a talk a few months ago and had a gentleman in the back row raise his hand and say, ‘I just realized something: Children my daughter’s age are managing me.’”

Never before has Georges’ research focus — the multigenerational workforce — been more critical. For the first time in America’s history, four generations are interacting in the workplace: veterans (born 1922-1943), baby boomers (1944-1960), Generation X (1961-1980) and millennials (1981-2000). Soon that will be five age groups, once Generation Z (born after 2000) starts drawing paychecks.

If you want your workplace operating at peak efficiency, folks on your team better get along — no matter their age.

“It’s a dynamic we haven’t seen before and people are trying to figure out how to negotiate that landscape,” Georges says. “It can be tricky, and for many it’s a time full of emotional stereotypes and expectations about each generation. I think there’s a really great opportunity for … additional diversity of thought in the workplace, but people just don’t know how to navigate it yet.”

Millennials typically are mentioned most when workforce generations are studied, and with good reason: By 2025, they will constitute 75 percent of the workforce. They are the most racially and ethnically diverse population in U.S. history, and the most educated. They’re technologically astute.

But some generalizations are not so kind.

People in other generations may see them as lazy, coddled, entitled and too worried about self-esteem. The “everyone gets a ribbon” generation, Georges says.

That’s not lost on these up-and-comers.

“A challenge is a lot of millennials come into the workplace and they know what the stereotype is and already feel there is a disadvantage because people assume they’re one way. That’s something they work against. They don’t feel it’s a level playing field.”

Georges sees their positives — and the value they can bring to a company. “I like to call them the inspired generation, for a lot of reasons,” she says.

And finding the positives among each age group is key to making them work in harmony.

“Each generation has a unique talent base and perspective,” Georges says. “To embrace those perspectives brings a richness to an organization. To ignore those differences is a disservice to an organization.”

Georges points to research by leadership expert Jack Zenger showing that while the average age of a person in a supervisory role is 33, the average age of an employee participating in any sort of leadership training is 42.

“Essentially, people are operating companies untrained, at least from a leadership perspective, for at least a decade,” Georges says.

If younger workers are to get the knowledge they need, they’ll need to work more closely with the experienced boomer colleagues.

For that to happen, stereotypes often must be dumped. Georges, for instance, heard from a local real estate company asking her why millennials “are so lazy about cold-calling.” Rather, texting is what they’re good at. Talking, Georges says, “is something they need practice with.”

She points to another complaint heard in one office that older boomers were ignoring instant messaging software in the office. Turns out it wasn’t that they wouldn’t IM, but that they couldn’t.

“I just can’t figure it out,” one boomer said. A millennial volunteered to show him the ropes.

It was symbolic of what might be Georges’ best piece of advice: Remember, you’re interacting with an individual, not a generation.

Psychological Safety and Trust

Learning and innovation don’t come easy, says Lance Frazier, PhD, an associate professor of management at Creighton.

It’s something he tries to get across to freshmen in an introduction to college class he teaches, emphasizing that “failure is not an indictment on your ability to perform. It’s just an opportunity to learn and to grow. In order to innovate, you’ve got to try some things that are not going to work.”

But in order for a company’s employees to take chances that might fail, to risk, to raise potentially controversial and unpopular ideas, to challenge the status quo, they must feel psychologically safe to do so — and have trust in their supervisor.

“If there’s no trust, you’re always worried if this person is going to look out for you or is going to be, for lack of a better term, out to get you. You may lack ability to focus on the task and not be able to get the job done.”

In a recent study, Frazier found that three qualities need to exist in supervisors for employees to have trust in them: ability (whether supervisors have the requisite skills); benevolence (whether supervisors care for employees); and integrity (whether supervisors live or conduct themselves at work according to a set of acceptable principles).

But while all three are factors shown to impact trust, nothing mattered more consistently than ability.

“If you want to be trusted by employees, be knowledgeable and skilled in your job,” Frazier says. “And that makes sense. We want to work for people who not only know what they’re doing but we can learn from. That we can be developed under and developed by.”

In employee-supervisor relationships older than a year, benevolence or integrity could be present in varying degrees to have trust in one’s supervisor, but ability always mattered.

Frazier sees the preference for ability regularly — in his classroom. He often gives students descriptions of supervisors who rate high in one area — ability, benevolence or integrity — but lower in the other two. Invariably, students say they’d most like to work for the supervisor with ability — even if integrity or benevolence are lower.

“The low-ability supervisor always gets the lowest scores from the students,” Frazier says. “They say, ‘If they don’t know what they’re doing, I don’t want to work for that person.’”

So what’s a company to do?

Hiring supervisors with ability is a start. But once they’re in place, they can be trained to bolster psychological safety and trust.

“It starts with supervisors, really,” Frazier says. “The way they interact and the way they respond when employees challenge them and make suggestions that run counter to the way you’re currently doing things. How a supervisor responds to that sends signals and affects the extent to which employees will continue to be engaged.”

Supervisors ought to be trained in body language and their voice. If valid suggestions are made, accept those suggestions and celebrate successes when they happen.

“In order to learn, you have to kind of stick your neck out a little bit and risk and experiment,” Frazier says. “If you feel like you’re going to be safe if you fail in an experiment you do or try a new thing and it doesn’t work, people appreciate that because they know that incremental failure is what leads to learning and additional experimentation, innovation and creativity.”

Promoting Work-Life Balance

To listen to Erika Kirby, PhD, tell it, employers can get more out of their employees by seeing … less of their employees.

Specifically, by encouraging them to take what they’ve got coming to them — like vacation time. Too often, though, that’s not what happens.

“So many people never use it, and even if it gets to losing it, people opt to lose it because of this sort of ethos that we have in this country about how much we work,” says Kirby, a professor of communication studies who has been at Creighton since 1998. “This drive to work, work, work, I think organizations prefer in the short-term. But if we really were a long-term thinking society, we’d realize the health problems … linked to stress and its outcomes.”

If an employee doesn’t use all of his or her vacation time, or any other work-life benefit provided, such as family leave when a child is born, it very well may not be management to blame.

Often, the blame can lie with fellow employees.

Kirby surmises such in one of the foundational papers on work-life balance, written with co-author Kathleen Krone of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “The Policy Exists But You Can’t Really Use It: Communication and the Structuration of Work-Family Policies.” In 2015, it received the Charles Woolbert Research Award from the National Communication Association. The top research honor in communication studies, it is given only to articles at least 10 years old, recognizing works that have stood the test of time.

Kirby and Krone examined how communication among co-workers impacts utilization of work-life programs. Such benefits are more visible than ever. Kirby points to Working Mother magazine, which each year ranks its 100 best companies to work for based on benefits such as flexible work, paid leave, support for women’s advancement and more.

But just because a company offers such benefits doesn’t mean they’re being fully utilized. If employees complain, for instance, about “picking up the slack” for those using family leave, such talk may dissuade co-workers from maximizing benefits available to them.

Kirby points to her husband, who took two weeks of leave when their first child was born in 1997, even though he could have taken up to six.

“This idea that we care what our co-workers think … and we might actually not use policies available to us or things like that in order to keep co-workers happy because we want to have this pleasant work environment, I think that transcends a lot of policy things that are out there,” Kirby says.

That’s not to say supervisors don’t have influence. They do.

“But a lot of times when we think about managing, we think about how the manager influences one person. But we don’t think of the organizational community and how people shape the workplace together.”

Workers without children, for instance, might see a new parent’s family leave as a “vacation.”

“And that’s sometimes why family-friendly policies get resentment from people who feel they can’t take advantage of them.”

To help, some organizations are “going to more neutral things, such as people can have this much leave and use it in a multitude of ways,” not just for family leave.

As Kirby knows, a balanced worker is a productive worker.

And that makes for a better workplace.