Most managers know workplace culture is a fundamental source of competitive advantage. However, few succeed in building one that helps them make money while nurturing staff. Instead of harnessing people’s strengths for collective gain, they often foster a climate that fails to deliver sustainable benefits.

Polling by Gallup shows only a third of American workers feel actively “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” Despite a focus on raising engagement to boost productivity, this figure has barely improved in 20 years. Globally, the wasted potential is starker: fewer than one in six employees are engaged.

More than 80% of bosses think developing a culture that motivates staff is an essential component of business success, according to a survey by Bain and Company. Yet many organisations, particularly in finance, boast of having “an eat what you kill mentality”. This alpha-male hunting metaphor is prehistoric, and it ignores the collaborative ways in which humans evolved. The impact on the planet of unfettered greed is one of many urgent factors compelling modern business to rethink priorities.

“We are dedicated to investing in sustainable companies that provide goods and services consistent with a low-carbon, prosperous, equitable, healthy and safe society,” say asset managers at Generation Investment Management. With a consistent focus on creating a collaborative and inclusive culture, as well as their mission-driven investment mandate, Generation stands out against the traditional hierarchical, top down approach you typically find in finance. One of the start-ups they invest in is Asana, whose project-management software aims “to help humanity thrive by enabling all teams to work together effortlessly”. As Asana’s founders see it: “all human progress comes down to teamwork, from sustainable energy to improving education to curing disease”.

Truly effective teamwork requires an inclusive corporate culture. People work best when they feel at ease to be themselves, and developing diverse talent reaps rewards, as I have written about before. Increasing engagement gives employees a stake in the company’s purpose, promoting professional and personal growth that reduces staff turnover. These sorts of shifts do not happen by chance. Institutional change needs support from the top, with improved communication, continuous training and well-managed monitoring.

When these measures are in place, employees thrive and the bottom line grows. As Freya Williams explains in Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability Into Billion-Dollar Businesses, responsible missions and visionary leadership are lucrative. Companies such as Chipotle, which is the largest restaurant purchaser of sustainable and humanely reared meats, and Natura, which sells sustainable cosmetics, “regard profit as an outcome of achieving their purpose,” she writes. “This philosophy is part of what enables them to outperform their profit-oriented counterparts.”

Enlightened executives focus on long-term cultural goals. This takes a team effort. At Equality Group, we work closely with managers to turn ambitions into tangible results. When the Swedish investment firm Kinnevik committed to ambitious diversity targets, we spent two months with their entire team developing an actionable framework and a clear roadmap for the next three years. “Measurable performance indicators will increase our focus on diversity and inclusion even further and create shareholder value,” says Kinnevik’s CEO, Georgi Ganev.

By contrast, poor management fuels a toxic workplace culture, with bullying especially rife. A third of UK employees surveyed by Equality Group said they disliked their work because of how they were managed, and two thirds reported quitting a job because they had a bad boss. With reviews of most working environments a few clicks away on such sites as Glassdoor, businesses can no longer sweep a toxic culture under the rug. Instead, they need to take bold action – or lose out to rivals.

If you are interested in developing a more inclusive culture then contact Equality Group for training and advisory services at [email protected].