Fostering a positive work environment

Applicants, whether as an individual or team leader/manager, are expected to foster a positive work environment. This requirement could be stated explicitly, or could be implied in requirements such as ‘challenge and redirect misaligned behaviours’ and ‘challenge siloed thinking’. Specific behaviours like these suggest some cultural change is taking place.

A positive work environment is good for morale, retention, and productivity. It is more than having good employment policies, as these can be ignored or poorly implemented. People’s attitudes and everyday behaviours have a big impact on whether a place is enjoyable to work in.

Relevant capabilities

For public servants, there is a range of capabilities and behaviours relevant to fostering a positive work environment, including:

  • Creating a shared sense of purpose
  • Encouraging staff contributions
  • Builds capability
  • Values expertise
  • Establishes clear plans and objectives
  • Responds in a positive manner
  • Assists others to adapt to change
  • Cultivates productive working relationships
  • Brings people together
  • Ensures others are kept informed
  • Resolves conflict
  • Values individual differences and diversity
  • Guides, mentors and develops people
  • Exemplifies personal drive and integrity
  • Communicates with influence.

What is a positive work environment?

The Victorian Public Sector Commission has produced a useful toolkit with the title How positive is your work environment?

The toolkit defines a positive work environment as ‘productive, rewarding, enjoyable and healthy for everyone concerned’. Further, a positive work environment is characterised by:

  • ‘a high degree of trust and respect between all levels of staff
  • a climate in which colleagues feel valued, and have a strong sense of loyalty to the organisation
  • high quality leadership and management
  • open discussion that leads to resolution of conflict
  • a measure of self-determination over how work is undertaken
  • a culture where diversity is respected and valued
  • a lack of exclusive ‘clubs’ and cliques
  • opportunities for personal development and career progression
  • a high level of creativity and job satisfaction, arising from teamwork and cooperation.’

The toolkit is organised around ten elements, three perspectives [organisation, manager, individual] and four stages of developing a positive work environment [beginning, emerging, consolidating, established]. This material can be used to assess a work environment and identify what behaviours you are using as a manager or individual.

The ten elements are:

1. Vision and Values

2. Leadership and Accountability

3. Organisational Communication

4. Recruitment and Selection

5. Learning and Development

6. Human Resource Policies and Strategies

7. Workflow Management

8. Performance Management

9. Risk Management

10. Workplace Dispute Systems

Manager’s role

If you are moving to a new area or agency, it would be helpful to know whether a positive work environment already exists. For managers, this is critical information as it will affect how you respond to questions about managing. If the existing culture is toxic, undergoing change, or is well established as positive, how you manage will differ for each of these contexts. Even if no change is needed, part of managing is to maintain a positive work environment.

Individual’s role

Contributing to a positive workplace involves a range of behaviours. The VPSC toolkit can be used to identify what you do to support your team, manager and organisation. Examples of behaviours are:

  • support and model the values.
  • understand the values that reflect respect and dignity at work.
  • understand and work towards achieving the organisation’s vision.
  • accept their level of responsibility and have authority to decide and act.
  • provide their manager with regular feedback on performance.
  • length of time in the organisation, understanding of their tasks and career objectives determine how they will be managed.
  • regard performance management as an effective way of achieving a positive work environment.
  • contribute to the discussion of individual and team goals. They discuss their career goals, development needs and work preferences with their manager.
  • understand what is expected of them over the next year, have the capacity to undertake the work and are supported with training.
  • are praised and rewarded for their accomplishments. They receive timely, constructive feedback from their manager when they need it.


Three skill sets for building a positive workplace concern conflict, performance and risks. While not the only relevant skills, these three are areas that can be challenging to handle.


The VPSC’s toolkit includes links to relevant resources. One of these is the Developing Conflict Resilient Workplaces: An Implementation Guide for Victorian Public Sector Managers and Teams.

This guide describes the features of a conflict resilient workplace – one where conflict is managed well, and not allowed to escalate. The guide leads you through a series of action steps to build a more positive workplace.

Much of the guide is diagnostic: it encourages you to ask questions about your organisation’s systems, values and behaviours to identify the most important issues to work on. It also gives practical tips for writing business cases and presenting options to senior management.

The guide defines a conflict resilient workplace as ‘one where strong communications and relationships underpin the conflict management system. It is one that integrates strong diagnosis (‘what is the cause of the problem?’) with appropriate decision making about the best response (‘is this best managed through adjudication by a third party, or can we resolve this better through mediation, a courageous conversation or facilitation?’).’

Conflict resilient workplaces share four features:

  • ‘Promote They are proactive in building a culture of communication.
  • Prevent They stop things going wrong.
  • Respond They respond quickly and appropriately when things do go wrong.
  • Comply They comply with relevant guidelines, rules, regulations and address principles of natural justice and procedural fairness.’

The guide outlines an integrated conflict management model which links rights-based formal procedures with alternative dispute resolution models. It includes formal grievance processes – but uses them for specific disputes suited to formal complaints, or as a safety net.

The characteristics of an integrated conflict management model are:

  • ‘Provides early intervention through a triage or collaborative intake assessment model with multiple entry points for ease of access.
  • Identifies root causes of problems in addition to symptoms, and shares this information to create change.
  • Uses alternative dispute resolution methods (feedback, conversation, mediation, facilitation) that preserve workplace relationships by,

– addressing the needs and interests of the people involved, not just formal rights; and

– encouraging self resolution (with support), rather than emphasising a formal arm’s length process.

  • Incorporates preventative actions such as training and awareness raising.’

Considerable emphasis is placed on the triage process. The guide points out that:

‘Through a triage process, it will for example, become apparent that if someone is accused of doing something that by policy and law must formally be dealt with, and if the other person clearly disputes that accusation, the appropriate process will be a rights-based process of adjudication. Here, a formal complaint is usually warranted.’

‘Alternatively, if a dispute seems to have arisen through lack of clarity about issues (for example, where a person perceives someone’s behaviour as bullying), and if the dispute seems only to affect two parties, then mediation may be appropriate. If there is significant conflict, an intervention that transforms the conflict to the point where those affected are willing to cooperate would be appropriate.’

Further, the guide states that a triage process helps people to:

  • ‘define the problem and separate the problem from the person;
  • identify the roles and relationships that they have with each other and with the workplace;
  • identify the issues – personal, workplace, organisational, other;
  • identify interests, needs and concerns (not just rights);
  • unpack perceptions, assumptions, interpretations and expectations;
  • consider the impact of emotions on the process;
  • consider their own and others skills and communication styles;
  • identify the information needed;
  • explore options and alternatives;
  • communicate choices;
  • use objective criteria; and
  • commit to change.’

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes include approaches such as feedback, mediation, facilitation and conflict coaching, processes that can be used as an alternative to, or alongside, more formal, rights-based models.

ADR methods are informal, voluntary and don’t include litigation. They are based on four key tenets:

  • ‘The best decision makers in a dispute are usually the people directly involved.
  • To effectively resolve a dispute, people need to hear and understand each other.
  • Disputes are best resolved on the basis of the people’s interests and needs.
  • Disputes are best resolved at the earliest possible time and at the lowest possible level.’

Part of managing conflict is to know when to use alternative dispute resolution processes. The guide makes clear that: ‘In most workplaces, conflict develops through everyday misunderstandings. Differences in style and expectations generate resentment, avoidance, aggression and other destructive thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The most strongly negative feelings associated with interpersonal conflict are anger, fear and contempt, which predispose people to disengage, or to engage destructively.

Once they are in a state of conflict, people identify others as the problem, cling to their own fixed positions, feel that they can only win if the others lose and insist on their own subjective criteria.

People in conflict find it hard to engage constructively until they have acknowledged the sources of the conflict, and have begun to transform conflict into cooperation. ADR approaches facilitate this kind of change in thinking and behaviour.’

Part of the guide identifies issues and some useful tools for use where managers and teams are seeking to develop a more conflict resilient workplace. It explains these against the background of the steps commonly used in any change management exercise. These include checklists for important questions:

  • Do you have evidence of a need for change?
  • How well are complaints being managed?
  • How conflict resilient is your workplace?

If you are in a role where you see a need for building a conflict resilient workplace, or you’re wondering how to go about handling a conflict situation, this guide is essential reading.

Performance management

There is a wealth of material on performance management in the public sector, with most jurisdictions offering resources. Examples of resources are:

While handling underperformance is a typical interview question, think also about how you build a productive team so that the risk of underperformance is minimised. Much performance management is about day-to-day practices. As the SA Public Sector points, these practices include:

  • ‘Making time for performance conversations and activities.
  • Actively involving and supporting each team member to achieve their goals.
  • Helping each team member to set clear, measurable goals.
  • Showing appreciation frequently and building rapport continuously.
  • Providing regular and timely coaching in the moment.
  • Monitoring performance regularly throughout the year.
  • Planning ahead for each performance management and development conversation.
  • Adapting your approach to suit your purpose and each team member’s style and motivations.
  • Adapting your communication style to each individual’s needs.
  • Following up by planning and implementing a range of next steps as appropriate.’

Risk management

As with performance management, there are plenty of resources on managing risk. Examples are:

What these resources show is that risk varies by level of responsibility and by context. Risks are categorised as financial, trust, integrity, compliance, IT, health and safety to name a few, and several categories may apply to a given situation. There are aspects of risk management that apply to everyone in the public service, as well as elements that are more relevant to people in specialist and executive roles. Selecting an example is based on understanding the role context and what risks are relevant, assessing experience for an appropriate example, and constructing a CAR-based response that demonstrates your understanding of risk and ways to respond.


Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.