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How to Create a Great Work Culture: “Create a more “human” workplace” with Michael Papay and Chaya Weiner

This is a humanitarian issue. The workplace is literally killing people. We believe that we can help reverse this trend by elevating the importance of Employee Voice and creating a more “human” workplace. After all, your people are your organization’s most important asset, and there is really no way to transform your organizational culture without […]


This is a humanitarian issue. The workplace is literally killing people. We believe that we can help reverse this trend by elevating the importance of Employee Voice and creating a more “human” workplace. After all, your people are your organization’s most important asset, and there is really no way to transform your organizational culture without listening to their voices.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Papay, Founder and CEO of Waggl. A proven HR technology pioneer with over 15 years of experience building and leading Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses within the discipline of Human Capital Management, Michael Papay currently serves as CEO & Co-founder of Waggl, a San Francisco Bay Area company that provides a simple, cloud-based solution to help organizations listen to people, distill insights and improve. Michael is a frequent author and contributor to advancing the thought leadership around organizational learning and employee engagement. He believes that mutual respect and active listening leads to more meaningful relationships and productive organizations, and that candor and transparency lead to a more connected and engaged workforce. Michael also feels strongly that the best ideas and input can (and should) come from anywhere in the organization.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was fortunate enough to have taken a course in Organizational Development while I was at Babson College. One thing that I still remember to this day was my Professor describing how, during the time he worked in New York City, he would watch people come in and out of these big skyscrapers, and oftentimes, he’d see people grab the handle of a door and take a huge breath, and then kind of brace themselves before they entered the building to go to work. He commented to the class that if we ever found ourselves doing that, we might want to assess whether we had the right job fit. But the truth is that lots of people have miserable work experiences. I was drawn to this field because I wanted to help people become more connected and have more of a sense of purpose in the workplace.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

For me personally, one of the most interesting experiences was being featured in a Fast Company article about The Value of Hobbies That Make You Slow Down. My hobby is wine-making, I make a barrel of wine every year. It requires lots of patience and faith in the process, because wine moves at his own clock, and that’s kind of humbling. But you make lots of small adjustments as you go, and in two years you’ll be able to get a nice bottle of wine. There are clear parallels between making wine and running a technology startup — starting out with a vision, working to get it just right, making lots of pivots and adjustments along the way.

I loved having the opportunity to share that publicly, because it signaled to the rest of the company that it’s important to have a life outside of work, and also important to bring your personal passions into the workplace. Since that article, our company, Waggl has won awards for being one of the Best Places to Work in the SF Bay Area (San Francisco Business Times/Silicon Valley Business Journal) and for being one of Inc. Magazine’s 2018 Best Workplaces, in large part because we place such emphasis on encouraging that balance between work and life.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Waggl, we help organizations to transform their cultures through active listening and authentic dialogue. Together, these two practices help to surface real-time insight, fresh perspective, and tangible knowledge that can be used to make strategic decisions.

One of the most exciting projects we are working on is at UCHealth, where they’ve revamped their Employee Voice process to improve engagement and build trust within the organization. This model, grounded in the values of transparency, immediacy, accountability, and alignment, can significantly transform organizational culture and re-cast engagement as a powerful lever for action. Within just one quarter, UCHealth saw engagement scores significantly improve throughout the organization. As leaders and employees continue to engage in authentic, transparent dialogue focused on creating a place where everyone can thrive, the organization continues to see rapid and consistent improvement on everything from employee engagement to patient experience results.

This is a perfect example of how active listening and authentic dialogue, when applied on a continual basis can help to transform an organizational culture.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Having to go into a workplace where what you do day after day doesn’t make any difference feels utterly empty and hollow. And it’s even worse when you feel that you aren’t being heard. At a basic level, human beings want to be connected, and they want to feel that they matter. When leaders don’t listen, it severs the desire for connection at the core. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The best organizations are finding ways to activate the best in everyone by utilizing new technology that elevate the voices of their employees, and using the insights they glean in the process to make better decisions across the board.

We need to make the workplace more human. In a data-intensive reality where everything seems to be changing faster than ever before, connection to one another and to our organizations is more vital than ever before. In fact, competitive business advantage today lies in the ability to find the right signals in a busy universe and apply these insights quickly.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

We’ve all experienced the impact of unhappiness in the workplace. If you think about the difference between employees with exceptional output versus those with mediocre output, it’s like day and night. Now think about multiplying that by 100x or 1,000x, or 10,000x and it’s clear that an unhappy workforce makes a huge impact on organizational productivity and profitability. According to Gallup, a staggering 87% of employees worldwide are not engaged, and actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $483 billion to $605 billion each year in lost productivity.

In today’s hypercompetitive business climate, entire industries are being disrupted every 3.1 years. Experts are projecting that 50% of the S&P 500 will be replaced by 2027. It’s clear that businesses can no longer afford to ignore this issue.

Unhappiness is having an even greater impact on individual employee health and wellbeing. The biggest driver of health problems is stress, and one of the biggest drivers of workplace stress is bad bosses. The reality is that we’re now working more than ever. The average person will work over 70,000 hours in their lifetime (8 hrs/day x 5 days/week x 50 weeks/year x 35 years in a career). This far exceeds the average 1.5 hours of time most of us spend with our own families. And in fact, 40% of the US population believes it is impossible to succeed at work and have a balanced family life. But increased work time is not translating into greater productivity and nor is it translating into greater happiness. Asking people to be plugged in and responsive all the time is leading to unprecedented levels of burnout and work-related stress.

In the book, Dying for a Paycheck, Jeremy Pfeffer makes a case that 61 percent of employees say that workplace stress had made them sick and 7 percent say they had actually been hospitalized. Job stress costs US employers more than $300 billion annually and may cause 120,000 excess deaths each year. In China, 1 million people a year may be dying from overwork. So, this is a humanitarian issue. The workplace is literally killing people. We believe that we can help reverse this trend by elevating the importance of Employee Voice and creating a more “human” workplace. After all, your people are your organization’s most important asset, and there is really no way to transform your organizational culture without listening to their voices.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. In a high velocity, data-intense environment, it’s crucial for leaders to listen more intently and actively, and find new ways to distill information. Authentic inquiry is an approach to learning that begins with the learner’s interest and experience, and move gradually toward a publicly agreed-upon assessment criteria. When people are provided with a forum to practice authentic inquiry in the workplace by asking questions and investigating topics of interest, it facilitates understanding and openness to change.
  2. Practice authentic dialogue. Human relationships are built on communication, but in the workplace, leaders often don’t have time to get into authentic and meaningful conversations. In order to shape strong bonds, leaders need to build communication strategies that are less digital. Coming in without an agenda allows your people to talk about their challenges and where they need help, and helps to unearth issues that need to be tackled. Authentic dialogue helps to develop emotional intelligence throughout the organization and paves the way for a different type of culture — one based on trust and mutual respect, rather than outmoded methods of autocratic management.
  3. Encourage accountability. Culture is personal — it has to be, because it’s a direct reflection of ourselves and our values. In order to have a thriving culture, feedback can’t just be directed toward individuals. It has to be about the collective “We.” Everybody needs to take responsibility for their own engagement. One thing we’ve learned from decades of employee engagement programs is that it’s not possible for HR to just “keep everyone happy.” In order for engagement efforts to be successful, they need to involve everyone at the organization, including executive management.
  4. Build trust and rapport. An amazing culture doesn’t just mean providing perks like free lunches and happy hours. It means creating a foundation of trust in which people feel free to express their ideas and know that their opinions matter. Transparent communication is the key to building trust and rapport in the workplace, and to developing a healthy culture. It also leads to more engagement and, in turn, higher performance, increased productivity, and better business outcomes.
  5. Cultivate alignment. In traditional organizations, decisions are often made in a closed room with a small, narrowly defined set of leaders, and are rarely shared with the larger organization. This is why 70 percent of all change initiatives fail, because change agents overlook the role front-line managers play in the success of the initiative. In order to engage the people who will actually execute on those decisions, leaders have to create alignment, which requires visibility into decisions as they are being made, and into the reasoning behind them. Providing greater visibility into executive decision-making eliminates the traditional knowledge hierarchy, but it can offer many benefits to the organization as a whole. For one, it builds collaboration between co-workers, teams, departments and offices. Wider dispersion of knowledge can contribute to shared goals, and grasping the larger vision of what management is working on and where the organization is trying to go builds a shared sense of purpose.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

As a society, I believe that we need to flip the stakeholder priorities. Currently, the stock market is perceived to be the primary audience, and it promotes a short-term focus. The recent case of General Electric being delisted from both the Dow Jones and the S&P 500 serves as a shot across the bow that companies that used to be the safest bets in terms of stock price are at risk. GE is a company that was long held in the highest esteem, where 10% RIFs occurred quarterly and profits were managed to a penny. But as it turned out, that wasn’t a great long-term strategy.

Going forward, it will become more important to take an inward-out approach, in which the business is viewed like a product or service being used by its employees. Employees get something out of the company — a fair wage, opportunity for advancement, training, new relationships, etc. In return, the company gets optimal productivity, the attainment of its goals, and a successful business. This model translates into long-term productivity and a great brand.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

My primary goal is to demonstrate equal regard for people and results. Many years ago, I was trained in a program called Grid International, based on the work of Dr. Robert Blake and Dr. Jane Mouton, two renowned pioneers in management consulting. That experience helped me to realize that if you want strong results as a leader, the entire core group needs to be thriving. In the Grid program, you were teamed with people you didn’t know, and they would observe you in a work setting and give you feedback. The philosophy was based on the revelation that group therapy coming out of World War II was more effective than individual therapy. In a group setting, when you’re surrounded by people you don’t know giving you feedback, it’s hard to hide from it.

The Grid model shows a Y axis charting results and an X axis charting people. As a leader, you want to be able to create an equal tension between regard for results and regard for people, which is what they refer to as a 9.9 leader. It’s easy for leaders to care more about results and less about people, or a ton about people and not about results. But the goal is to be a 9.9 leader — someone who has equal regard for the people as they do for the results. From that experience, I learned that if you want to survive in business, you can’t lose sight of people. I try to walk the talk by modeling that kind of interaction in our own organization, and I encourage others to do so, too.

Many decades ago, leaders may have had a different set of priorities, but things are different now. To paraphrase Josh Bersin, in the war for talent, the talent has won — it’s impossible to hang on to hang on to your best employees and get the best out of everyone in your organization if you don’t put people first. It reminds me of that Dr. Pepper commercial that says, “I want it all, and I want it now.” That pretty much summarizes the expectations of millennial generation, and it has deeply shaped my own leadership style and strategy.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Cal Wick, a well-respected Management and Leadership Training consultant and the Founder of Fort Hill Company, asked me to help him start a new HR Technology company when I was fresh out of Babson College. It provided me with massive exposure to top talent, leaders and hundreds of leading organizations. But in addition to that, Cal put great care and effort into my development, and served as a wonderful mentor to me. His was not just a “check the box” approach. Cal trusted me to try some new things, and to start a new sales office in San Francisco, give keynotes for the first time, and more. I worked with Cal for more than a decade, and the learning I took from that experience shaped everything I do to this day.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My feeling is that “goodness” shouldn’t be an extra activity, but rather should be something that’s integrated into your daily life. The reality is that, as a startup co-founder, I spend 80 hours a week building my business, but even within those parameters, I try to model the right behaviors and show people how to live a good life. I try to integrate basic core values like trust and respect into everything I do, and allow that to rub off on people, both within the workplace and outside of it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

– Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

To me, this quote exemplifies the right combination of grit and agility, as well as the process of learning through doing. This is what is required to be a successful leader today — the ability to jump in an create a new type of organization that thrives in the midst of constant change and disruption. We’ve built Waggl on the principles illustrated by this quote, and we try to live up to it every day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

At Waggl, we’re focused on giving voice to people and separating it out from the noise of day-to-day activity. Our mission is to help people feel more engaged and less lonely, and to have a more meaningful experience within the workplace.

We believe strongly that elevating Employee Voice is essential for helping organizations to improve from within. We are all experiencing new challenges in today’s hypercompetitive business environment. Elevating Employee Voice leads to more inclusive and transparent communication, more authentic feedback, greater retention of top talent, and higher levels of engagement across the entire organization.

The future of employee engagement lies in providing tools that enable employees to keep themselves motivated, based on highly personalized goals and support. And the future of successful management will exist in tools, paired with human connection, that provide employees with a voice and offer insights that enable directed action in bite-sized chunks. If we are able to reach a million leaders, they will, in turn have an impact on tens, or even hundreds, of millions of employees.

We’re just getting started. But if we have anything to say about it, in the next decade the workplace will look very different, and people will have a completely different type of relationship with their jobs.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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