Building a Thriving Work Culture
An organization’s work culture can be compared to a massive iceberg with a small portion sticking above water – visual cultural aspect, and a significant portion underwater – the hidden deeper aspects.
Business culture is made up of a set of shared beliefs, values, attitudes, goals, practices, norms, and behaviors that characterize the way a business functions. It’s the way they do things. Because the culture influences how employees behave and a company’s ultimate success, organizations go to great lengths to create a productive work environment.
Getting back to our cultural iceberg metaphor, the visual expressions showing above the surface include things like: dress code, work environment, open conversations, work/life balance, titles/job descriptions, and relationships. Looking below the surface are invisible manifestations that make up the culture’s core, such as values, private conversations, unwritten rules, attitudes, beliefs, moods, emotions, unconscious interpretations, and assumptions.
Connecting into the water cooler talk or the grapevine tells you more about these invisible below the surface aspects.
Think of business culture as the work environment that determines how people think, act, and view the world around them.
Ask anyone who knows much about cultures, and you will quickly find that it takes years to form. This prompts the question, “Is it even possible to change an existing culture, much less create a productive culture?
Many challenges are plaguing organizational cultures, most of which we as leaders create ourselves.
Some of the biggest culture challenges include:
- Leaders assume their company’s vision, values, and strategy are aligned with their culture when, in fact, they are merely fancy words written on the wall.
- Expressed words are not implemented into actions. Leaders don’t walk the talk.
- Inconsistency in the treatment of employees or perceptions of unfairness.
- Negativity or backbiting. Disengagement, low morale, and lacking commitment.
- Over competitiveness and lacking Unclear teamwork values, vision and strategy Entitlement mentality
- Negative conflict
- Emphasis on external motivators Us against them attitudes/silos Lacking accountability.
Creating Cultural Changes
The good news is you can create the kind of culture you desire and can eliminate cultural challenges.
How do you change the cultural challenges that took you years to create?
Many acquisition experts know the fastest way to change a culture is to cut it off at the head and put in place leaders who exhibit desired behaviors and results. Therefore you’ll often see a full senior management team replaced after a significant merger or acquisition. Although I’m not a big fan of this approach, it can work. I participated in identifying employees who were part of a layoff at one of my former organizations. We created a process where we identified the lower producers, negative naysayers, non-team players, whiners, and disengaged employees and marched them kindly out the door. Wow, what a difference it made in our overall culture from that day forward. I hate to say it, but sometimes a sound reduction in force is just what a business need. The reality is that we should have solved the employee problems long before a reduction was necessary. Cultures can be changed little by little, taking using the steps outlined in this article.
Step 1: Know who you are and who you want to be. Until you have a clear picture of what your culture is now, and what you want it to be, you are kidding yourself in any efforts to make needed change.
Step 2: Identify cultural challenges and obstacles. What or who is preventing your culture from moving forward. Employee opinion surveys, task force reviews, interviews, and analysis can help uncover the needed facts to move forward.
Step 3: Creating your clear vision and communicate it. Clearly define with leaders and employees where you are now and where you want to be. Obtain their involvement in how you will get there. Communicate a clear business case for the needed changes and dedicate the needed resources to bring about the change. See things from the employee’s perspective and communicate in a way that helps them see the value to them for your desired cultural changes.
Step 4: Get the right people in the right positions. Jim Collin’s big statement about getting the right people on the bus rings clear in creating a productive culture. Hire people who exhibit the characteristics, attitudes, and abilities you desire in your culture. Help employees who cannot get on board with your desired changes leave your organization. There will always be people who cannot adapt to the needed changes and need to leave.
Step 5: Rally support from leaders. Leaders at all levels in the organization must support your desired direction, or you are doomed to failure. This support must be expressed in their words and modeled by their actions to get employees excited and on-board.
Step 6: Reinforce and recognize. Recognize people who exhibit desired cultural behaviors, attitudes, and values. Celebrate progress along the way.
Step 7: Listen to feedback. Meaningful cultural change requires a deep connection and understanding from those who make up the culture – your people.
Listen to their feedback, complaints, and ideas. Find ways to continually tap into what they have to say, then involve them in getting to root causes that hinder progress, and ideas to make improvements.
Step 8: Evaluate and repeat steps 1 – 7.
As was mentioned, creating a productive culture does not happen overnight and often takes years to sustain meaningful change. This requires a commitment to the steps outlined in this article and coaching and assistance from experts who hold your feet to the fire. It is so easy to lose sight of your culture as it hides beneath the waters of running a business, making sales, earning profits, and the busy day to day operations.
Be clear about your culture and what you want it to be. Take steps to eliminate the barriers that prevent you from having the productive culture you desire. Communicate your cultural vision and values on an on-going basis. Keep the right people as you steer your culture to new heights. Ensure leaders are walking the talk and are reinforcing desired changes. Listen, surface resistance, and make needed changes along the way to create not only an outstanding culture but a thriving business in the process.
By Ken Spencer, President/CEO, HR Service, Inc.