When people talk about company culture, we may think of three-piece suits and bankers’ hours or t-shirts, flannels and ping pong tables in the break room.
In general, culture references the intangible qualities of a particular work environment. Your company’s culture can be difficult to describe, never mind assess and, if it isn’t what you want it to be, figuring out how to change it can feel impossible!
The best way to think about company culture is that it is, in essence, the personality of the organization. Just as an individual’s personality develops over time, due to the person’s unique experiences, upbringing, values, interests and habits, a company culture is comprised of the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors shared by the employees. Culture is profoundly swayed by the organization’s founder, but every employee contributes to shaping the culture over time, through their day to day interactions and behaviors.
So, what do you do when you look around one day and realize that your culture isn’t helping your organization reach its goals?
First, seek to understand
There is more than one way to evaluate your culture, but we will focus primarily on observation. You can do it any time, and it doesn’t cost you anything but time!
- Forget everything you know about your team, and look at them as if you are a complete stranger, entering the work environment for the first time. Ask yourself questions like: How do people interact with each other? How are conflicts resolved (and are there conflicts)? Can you tell who is a leader and who is an individual contributor? If so, how?
- What are people talking about, and what do they get worked up about? People focus on, and get excited or upset about things that matter. Are people talking about clients, sales, or projects? Do people seem engaged, interactive, excited, friendly and focused, or distracted, disgruntled, exhausted or withdrawn?
- Consider the items that sit on desks and hang on walls. Note how furniture is arranged in break rooms and waiting areas. Are there personal items and family mementos? Or are workspaces impersonal and sterile?
- How do employees communicate? What is the tone of the messages (formal or informal, pleasant or hostile, supportive or sabotaging, etc.)?
- Are your company values evident, either visually or by what you observe people saying or doing?
- What does your company measure, and what do they reward? As the saying goes, what gets measured, matters!
There are many other questions you can ask yourself as you observe your organizational culture. Consider what is most important to you, and develop additional questions to ask yourself. Once you’ve observed the workplace and employee interactions, summarize your key findings. How do you feel about them? Are you proud of your culture? Does it align with the company’s stated mission and values? Or do you see some opportunities to make things better? List these opportunities, to ensure you focus on changing them.
Then to be Understood
Now that you have a feel for the current culture, and you’ve identified what you’d like to be different, how do you go about creating the culture you want to have?
Consider your vision and values – do they paint a compelling picture of the where the company is going, and guide the behaviors for how to get there? Do they describe what is uniquely “you?” Will they help customers and potential customers “get” who you are and what you do?
If you don’t have a company vision and values, it’s time to create them!
Communicate and Repeat
Yes, your vision and values need to be on the wall, and in the handbook, and on your website – but that it not nearly enough. It has to be part of how you operate – how you make decisions, how you communicate, how you treat employees as well as the larger community. In any small business, the owner/founder/top dog is the most influential role model. As the saying goes: Be the change you wish to see.
If you have a management team, ensure they are acting in alignment with the vision and values, and that they are actively looking for opportunities to recognize employees who are demonstrating behaviors aligned with the desired culture, as well as encouraging those who aren’t to change.
When you have the opportunity to add team members, incorporate your values in the selection process. Describe workplace situations which typically occur, and ask candidates how they have handled similar situations in the past. Are their answers consistent with the culture you are trying to create? If not, it’s best to keep looking!
Last, but most importantly, keep in mind that this is an ongoing process. A culture is like any living creature – it must be fed, watered, sheltered and nurtured. If it’s neglected, it will wither and die. Find new and refreshing ways to celebrate your unique culture, so that it remains healthy and thrives!
This sounds like a lot of work, and right now, you may be thinking “it is really worth it?” According to an article by Fortune, about the 100 Best Companies to Work For list, “It’s the companies that employees say are great workplaces that demonstrate stronger financial performance, reduced turnover, and better customer and patient satisfaction than their peers.”