Your Culture is what it is. Want something different? Change it.

Your Culture is what it is. Want something different? Change it.

We’ve had amazing weather in the US this spring. The middle of the country is inundated with too much rain while California suffers the worst drought in recorded history. Europe is experiencing warmer storms than normal while the eastern Mediterranean is dealing with snow.

An organization’s culture is more like the weather than you might think. It’s tangible and real. You can look out the window to gauge the weather. You’ll get a better idea of the weather if you go outside to feel how warm or cold or humid it is.

Your culture is tangible and real, as well. Just as you get a better sense of the weather by going out in it, you’ll get a better sense of your culture by diving into it, by stopping and analyzing it. By observing how people in your organization treat each other and treat customers, how people invest their time and energy, how people make decisions, etc. Through these observations you can easily sense what the organization’s culture values, what it highly regards. Does it value results, profits, people, customers, innovation, power, control, etc.? What gets priority day to day?

Unlike your organization’s culture, though, the weather is closely studied by experts every hour (even every minute) of every day. Those experts predict the temperature and forecast weather trends throughout the day and share them in a variety of ways. You can get neighborhood-specific forecasts right on your smartphone, today.

There’s no current “organizational culture forecast” app on your smartphone (though some tools are getting closer; more on that in a moment). Your culture is probably not closely studied by experts right now. The reality is that most senior leaders invest more time and energy on their company’s products and services than they do in their company’s culture, yet culture drives everything that happens in their organizations, good or bad.

My job is to help leaders 1) understand the important role culture plays in organizational effectiveness,  2) craft specific, intentional guidelines for their desired culture (in the form of an organizational constitution, and 3) align plans, decisions, and actions by everyone, in every interaction, every day.

Culture And Engagement Are Gaining In Importance

The good news is that business and HR leaders are paying greater attention to culture and employee engagement. In Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends report, the most important issue is culture and engagement (slightly edging out leadership, the number one issue in 2014).

Why do leaders see the need for a greater focus on culture and engagement today? Because leaders are (finally) examining the quality of their culture and the degree of employee engagement, and both are lacking. These leaders are saying that, in their organizations, culture and engagement are not just lacking – they’re awful.

The Global Human Capital Trends report’s authors state (on page 4), “This challenge highlights the need for business and HR leaders to gain a clear understanding of their organization’s culture and reexamine every HR and talent program as a way to better engage and empower people.”

The members of your organization know very well whether your culture is healthy. They experience in every interaction whether or not your work environment treats others with trust, respect, and dignity. TinyHR’s 2014 engagement and culture report revealed what it calls a “company culture crisis:” 64% of employees do not believe their organization has a strong work culture.

Don’t leave the health of your organizational culture to chance.
-S. Chris Edmonds

How Are Organizational Cultures Created?

Most leaders don’t do proactive culture management. They don’t have the skills to do that. They’ve never been asked to do that. They’re asked to boost sales and profits, so they build skills in those things and they rely on those skills daily.

Not surprisingly, then, most organizational cultures happen by default, not by design. A company typically develops a product or service, markets their solutions heavily, and begins selling those products and services. If they’re lucky and efficient, they might make money selling them. The culture isn’t an afterthought – it’s not a conscious thought, at all. It evolves – not with intention but with ambiguity.

A very few organizational cultures are crafted intentionally from the moment they are created. W.L. Gore is one of the companies that did that. Founder Bill Gore created the company’s unique “lattice” structure. It was and is a holacracy – with no bosses or titles. Gore associates become leaders based on their ability to gain the respect of their peers and to attract followers. The Gore culture is very productive and very demanding – and very fun for those players that fit into that unique structure.

The majority of organizations, then, have an unintentional culture. A few unintentional cultures work out all right. Their particular evolution creates positive service behaviors and consistent performance. However, most unintentional cultures don’t work well for many – leaders, employees, even customers.

Classic indications of an ineffective unintentional culture include:

  • A lack of enforced standards for how people shall treat each other. There may be formalized values but they are not lived day to day.
  • Recognition is earned primarily and often exclusively for hitting performance targets. How you hit those targets isn’t really paid attention to. If one is aggressive, mean, or unethical while exceeding performance standards, one gets recognized and rewarded.
  • A lack of a consistent, reliable feedback mechanism for employees to share their perceptions of what it’s like to live and work in the culture. Engagement or satisfaction surveys are done rarely, if at all. When surveys are completed, little is done to fix issues that are raised.

A huge contributor to an ineffective unintentional culture is that bad behavior gets tolerated, so long as performance is good. If there are no negative consequences and no redirection of bad behavior, people continue to behave badly, which erodes trust, respect  and dignity.

What Can Leaders Do to Improve their Culture?

First, learn the condition of your culture. Wander around and observe how team members interact with each other and with customers. Ask other senior leaders to do the same. Hold informal focus groups to learn employee perceptions of how effectively the organization is operating. In addition, gather reliable data through tools like TinyPulse, a software solution provided by Tiny HR. TinyPulse provides real-time feedback with short, frequent surveys from employees. It’s as close to a “culture smartphone app” as I’ve seen.

Spend time at least once a week to review leaders’ perceptions of your culture’s overall health. You’ll find that there are some very good things in place as well as a number of gaps that need to be addressed. This is a vitally important step – and you’ll never be done with it. Effective leaders are constantly checking in on how well their culture is working for employees and customers.

Second, set formal standards about what a good job looks like in the form of an organizational constitution. Your constitution creates clear understanding of what you expect from a performance standpoint and a values standpoint. Define desired values in behavioral terms. Let everyone know what the new rules are – and model them daily to prove you are serious about your values and behaviors.

Third, hold everyone accountable for both performance and values. No ifs, ands, or buts. Celebrate the leaders and team members that deliver required performance while modeling your desired values. Survey employees to learn which leaders they think are living the valued behaviors – and which are not. Coach and redirect the players who don’t model your values or don’t deliver expected performance.

Want consistent high performance and values-alignment in your organization? Define it, align to it, and enjoy it.

How would you describe your organization’s culture – is it productive, fun, and vibrant, or is it dull, uninspired, and difficult to work in? Does your organization have stated values expectations and behaviors defined? What kinds of behaviors get measured, monitored, and rewarded in your culture?