Culture: What it is. How to change it.
Do a Google search for “corporate culture” and you’ll get millions of returns. The notions that each company has its own, unique cultures isn’t new — people have been writing about it for decades. But only in the last 10 years or so that it’s become a topic that people are keenly taking interest in. In fact, in Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report, 86% of their respondents viewed “corporate culture” as important or very important to business success. However, even though so many believe their company’s culture is key, only about 12% said they think their company is “driving the the right culture.” And only 28% say they “understand their organization’s culture.”
We know that this thing called “culture” is an important part of an organization, but many people struggle with just how to make it better, let alone define what it is. In my work with clients over the years, I’ve seen many organizations fail at well-intentioned attempts to positively shift culture. Often, these attempts center around perks in the hope that themed party days, great snacks in the break room, or letting people bring their dogs to work will create a great culture. In other organizations I’ve seen, senior leadership incorrectly has believed that creating a great culture hinges on bonus structures and compensation plans. While it is imperative for a company to be financially competitive for its employees, by no means will economic incentives make a great culture, or keep people motivated very long.
The bad news is that the seemingly easy ways to positively shift culture don’t work: perks and money. The good news is that with some effort, there are definitive steps you can take to create the culture you want. Here are some those steps — by no means exhaustive — on ways to help positively shift your organization’s culture.
Get clear on what you mean about culture: Having a common definition of what culture is is important. The definition we offer: that company culture is patterns of accepted behaviour, and the beliefs and values that promote and reinforce them. To ground this definition in practical experience, it’s useful to think about some of the currently accepted behaviours in your organization that you’re not pleased about, and the (often unconscious) beliefs or values from which they might arise.”
Establish trust: In order to create a culture of accepted and agreed upon behaviours, team members must feel psychological safe with one another — being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career. The key to creating this safety is by having senior leaders model vulnerability with their teams. This shows up in multiple ways, from publicly admitting mistakes, to asking for help, to revealing core experiences of one’s life and formations. Much of this learning comes from facilitated, experiential based workshops.
Identify your values and accepted behaviours: When it comes to values, 3 to 5 is plenty. Otherwise, they tend to be easily forgotten. With clients, I encourage creating a Culture Champion committee comprised of members from all levels of the organization. This committee is responsible for articulating a company’s core values — that way, there is buy-in when these values are later shared, and lived, by everyone. I encourage clients to balance aspiration with feasibility when articulating their values: you can pick values that aren’t fully embodied in your organization yet, but if you pick values that are completely out of sync with what your current population sees as important — it will be nearly impossible to make them your cultural foundation.
Once these values have been articulated, the next step is to figure out what the values will look like in daily life. How will these values show up as patterns of accepted behaviour? Say “accountability” is one of your company’s core values. This could mean that they show up as “I’m responsible for the outcomes of my decisions; I take action to find workable solutions to challenges; I set and achieve high standards.” These are great examples: they’re clear and simple, they’re visible — you could easily see whether or not someone was behaving in this way — and they’re well-connected to the value of accountability. Defining the behaviours associated with your values in this way allows you to use them practically in creating the culture you want: in hiring, promotion, development, and even when letting people go.
Start moving the cultural needle: After values and behaviours have been identified, I have clients select the three or four behaviours they believe are currently the farthest from being acceptable. Then, we strategize ways to make these behaviours easier, more rewarding and more normal for people to do. Usually, this involves a combination of offering skill development or knowledge, establishing incentives, removing organizational impediments, and supporting leaders to commit to consistently modelling these behaviours.
Get the whole organization involved: For new patterns of accepted behaviours — or culture — to take roots, everyone must participate. And for this participation to happen, values and behaviours must be communicated. And over communicated. All the time. This starts with facilitated emotional intelligence and conflict resolution workshops grounded in core values, and continues, forever, with reminders of what your organization believes in (values) and how it acts (its pattern of behaviours). This communication can happen in: email signatures, daily huddles, weekly meetings, town halls, storytelling, hiring, on-boarding, exit interviews. The list goes on.
Culture change is a commitment — far more than putting up a values poster in the break room and making sure the CEO talks about culture in his year-end speech. But the good news is, it works. Companies that invest in their culture enjoy profound benefits: improved profitability, ease of recruitment, increased morale, supply chain efficiencies, enhanced customer service experiences, better responsiveness to change, more efficient meetings, better relationships, less absenteeism, and higher retention.