Why care about “culture”?

Posted April 22, 2009 in Latest News & Insights

Words on the wall.  That’s what alot of organizational culture or values statements add up to.  I remember a client of mine in the late 90’s had a set of “values” that went along the lines of: teamwork, innovation, results and balance.

Sounded great, but the reality was the business was started and owned by an entrepreneur who was known for logging big hours at the office… which led his executive team to log big hours… which led to their teams to log big hours.  And, before you know it, “balance” was a word on the wall (and the email signature, business card, letterhead) etc. but nothing more.  To say the word was met with a high degree of cynicism from employees would be an understatement.

Organizational culture gets created by our actions and behaviours.  If an organizations’ leadership team isn’t clear and specific about the culture they want to create, then their actions (and how employees interpret those actions) will – by default – create the culture.

I think a lot of executive teams don’t “get real” about the kind of culture they’re truly committed to creating.  Instead, they throw down words like “balance” because they think it’s what employees want to hear.  In my opinion, this is like shooting yourself in the foot.  It sets up your entire relationship with employees as being one that lacks of commitment.  “We’re going to say we care about balance, but  we know that only those people that work their *sses off will get promoted. It’s this lack of commitment to so-called “people” initiatives that create the “flavour of the month” syndrome.  If you think you “should” have certain values because they sound good… my advice is DON’T DO IT! You’ll just create more problems for yourself down the road.  If you’re happy with your grind it out culture, then don’t try and make it pretty by throwing words like “balance” or “personal growth” onto a wall.  You’ll just make everyone angry.

That being said, here’s something to think about:  Organizational culture is a powerful animal.  We have all seen countless talented, smart, educated people fail in organizations because their poor fit with the culture.  As they say in the recruiting biz – we hire for skills, we fire for attitudes (aka: fit with culture).

So, if it’s so important, why don’t more leaders use “conscious” culture building as a tool?  I think, for some, it’s because this feels to “fluffy”… not “hard numbers” driven enough. A quick “cost of mis-hiring” should seal that arguement shut.  Others think it’s just too much work to define or change a culture.  It doesn’t have to be.  In my experience, to leverage the power of consciously building your organization or team culture, you need to do 4 key things:

  1. Define it… know REALISTICALLY what behaviours will enable your team or business to be successful and then get specific on what people need to be SAYING and DOING to demonstrate those behaviours.  Your list should be short… I like 4 key things, experts say no more than 5.  8 is probably too many.  You can call these things your commitments, values, guiding principles…whatever is the right language for the culture you want to create.
  2. Communicate it… share your list with everyone in your organization.  Talk about what it looks like.  Make people get specific about what htey are going to be “saying” and “doing” to support this culture.
  3. Reward it… just like parents of little kids know, that to get your child to do more of the kind of behaviour you want to see… you have to recognize them every time they do something right.  Acknowledge people who are demonstrating your cultural commitments/values as often as you can.
  4. Build it in… to your recruiting efforts (it’s easier to train on skills, harder to coach new behaviours); in your performance reviews (ask your team for examples of where they’ve demonstrated the values); at staff meetings (spend 5-10 minutes focusing on a specific value and do a skill building exercise around it)… etc.

And the final thing to do is to be consistent. Values shouldn’t change very often… they are the compass that guides your organization through good times and bad.  Consistency is the key to reaping the maximum rewards of this type of exercise.  By being conscious of the culture you want to create, you minimize distractions and internal conflicts by providing team members with a clear set of guidelines of how to work together to get the job done.  The culture you create can be your biggest competitive advantage and the key component that engages and retains your employees. Why leave it to chance?

Happy leading!


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