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The changemakers disrupting toxic work cultures

By Andrea Panaligan Published Dec 18, 2020 5:00 am Updated Dec 18, 2020 4:39 pm

The newest target of virtual witch hunts, it seems, are beloved TV stars who are less than charming to their employees backstage. Ellen DeGeneres, who constantly preached about kindness, has been called “one of the meanest people alive,” with countless online testimonials from her employees backing up the claim. One can attribute it to cancel culture, but perhaps it’s the revelation of a larger organizational ill that has been plaguing the underbelly of workplaces for years. 

This is definitely not an isolated case, which makes initiatives like Positive Workplaces (PW) such a necessity. Founded earlier this year by John Reily Baluyot and Nikki Vergara, PW strives to co-create workplace environments that enhance the wellbeing of the Filipino through learning experiences, trainings and consultations. Young STAR spoke with the founders about how the organization started, what positivity means at a time like this, and the power you hold in making a difference at your own workplace.

YOUNG STAR: Why did you decide to start Positive Workplaces PW?

 PW co-founder John Reily Baluyot

JOHN REILY BALUYOT: The idea fermented when Nikki and I, separately, were thinking of something we could do when we got home from Australia. We are both Australia Award scholars, and last year, we were there studying the courses we have now brought home. I wanted to take a shot at changing cultures, especially in the Philippines where workplaces usually have high power distance. You have bosses who, because they want to preserve power, don’t give much freedom for people to speak out. Even the employees themselves may not have the confidence to because they’re afraid of the repercussions. Another aspect is the collectivist mentality in Filipinos, which, on the one hand, is good because we get to have support systems very easily. But when groups start to be cliquish, they tend to exclude others. These can make workplaces toxic, and employees don’t reach their fullest potential. When I was on a bus with Nikki when we were in Melbourne, I said, “Nikki, you’re studying positive psychology. I’m studying leadership. Why don’t we cook something up that will change workplaces the way we envision them to be?”

 PW co-founder nikki vergara

NIKKI VERGARA: I started with this motivation of helping people be okay, so I was drawn to counseling. Then I realized that usually the people who approach counselors are already at their breaking point. I figured, why can’t we help everyone become better so they don’t have to reach that? So I studied positive psychology, and I wanted to enhance the wellbeing of people. When John pitched his idea, I thought the workplace is such a good place to start. A lot of research says that if you enhance the wellbeing in the workplace, people will actually take that home to their families. It’s one way of starting a ripple of wellbeing. These days, people expect work is going to be toxic, so they spend the rest of their time recovering from what happened at work. I hate the idea of that; I imagine that work itself can be a pathway towards wellbeing. That’s where John and I converged. 

After that bus ride, how did PW begin? 

JOHN: We were really strategic about it. The mission and vision of PW is to co-create cultures that enhance the wellbeing of Filipinos. We wanted a culture of improvement where people can strive based on their strengths. We wanted a culture of inclusivity, where we look at you based on your capabilities, not your weaknesses. We wanted a culture of inspiration; when you are in PW, you need to feel that you are going to make a dent in that very toxic corporate workplace. These were things we were very deliberate about.

A lot of people are iffy now about the idea of positivity because it can be misconstrued as blind optimism. How do you see positivity?

NIKKI: I think “toxic positivity” results from having an ungrounded positive perspective. It’s when people are suffering and you ignore all of it; you say, “Okay, let’s just focus on the positive.” For us, we’ve never ignored the context. That was always where we began: what’s actually happening, what are people actually feeling, and how can we work from there. 

How can positivity and concepts like positive leadership help if the conditions of the workplace seem out of the employees’ control?

NIKKI: The way we’ve envisioned it is through the positivity ripple. It starts with you leading yourself, then you can lead others, and when you do, even if it’s just two or three people, you’re already creating a subculture. Even if a lot of things in a bureaucratic organization are beyond your control, there are so many aspects you can control to create that subculture where you and others can thrive.

JOHN: That’s true. I’ve seen a lot of government agencies and private organizations where, no matter how toxic the macroculture is, certain teams exist where people are happy, where they get to be who they are and perform really well. We’re conformists, so when we see what’s so good about these teams, we tend to emulate. If we inspire more leaders to come up with their own positive microcultures, then more teams inside organizations start to realize the benefit of it. Eventually, it can erode macrocultures. 

Recently, have you been seeing any positive changes in workplace culture?

NIKKI: Before, there was this mentality that your wellbeing intervention should be done on an individual level. Now, organizations are taking more responsibility for it. There was also this tendency to just say “it is what it is,” but now people realize just how much they can do to impact their wellbeing. I imagine they would be more intentional about enhancing it, not just from bad to normal, but from normal to great as well.

Now that workplaces are being more deliberate about wellbeing, what is one thing people can do to make their workplaces more positive?

NIKKI: I would always anchor on the self-determination theory. They should be aware that the three basic ingredients for wellbeing are autonomy, which is directing your path; competence, which is having a sense of mastery over things; and relatedness, which is feeling like you belong. I hope people become more mindful of building these three things into their routines and habits.

JOHN: For me, the easiest thing we can do is checking in and checking out at meetings. At first I felt it was too fluffy; I always wanted to drive straight to the agenda. But when we started doing it consistently — kumustahan every start of the meeting, then gauging what we feel after — I saw its benefit because I got to know people better. I got insight on how to approach different members of the team. 

NIKKI: To add to that, human resources. Before they are resources, they are human. The check-ins are the perfect opportunity for you to get to know your colleagues, so you’re more relational than transactional. When people feel more seen and heard, they can actually perform better, and they feel that they are taken care of. 

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To learn more, visit positiveworkplaces.org.

Banner photo Art by Joshua Tolentino