Companies spend a lot of time defining their desired culture. They articulate why people work there, what values guide them and how they do things, as well as the intended outcomes of their efforts.
(Re-)defining the culture strategy is much more than a clever copywriting exercise. In its best form, this work is informed by the entire leadership team and key people across different levels of the organization. Often, an external advisor is contracted to help guide the process and contribute with their experience and unbiased perspective.
It is not a light exercise, nor it should be. It can take months to get to the point where the strategy is launched and discussed with all employees. Feedback is given, some elements are adjusted and finally – after many discussions and iterations – the company has a solid foundation on which it can continue to build its culture. Now what?
It’s easier to state what we should do in theory than doing it in practice. Culture development requires sustained effort, and sometimes we don’t even know where to begin. A healthy culture doesn’t just happen because the strategy is in place or because people have read and internalized the values – it requires hands-on action on a quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily basis.
Guardianship: is what you say aligned with what you do?
Even if you have assigned a head of culture, or if culture development is part of HR’s responsibilities, know that the first and foremost guardians of culture are your company’s top executives. If employees don’t see your leaders’ behavior translate the values in a truthful way, you can expect to see misalignments between how you wish your culture to be and how it is in reality.
Every action has a reaction. It’s easier to create a virtuous cycle than break a vicious one.
As a leader, ask yourself if your behavior today is paying tribute to the values and ways of working that the company wishes to instill.
At the same time, be merciful: We are not perfect. Sometimes we even act against our own personal values. If you realize that the way you spoke to your peer or dealt with an urgent issue with your team didn’t go well today, adjust your course tomorrow. Have those conversations and clarify what was left unsaid. We connect more with others when we are able to show our imperfections, our vulnerability, when we acknowledge our own shortcomings.
Dialogue: do employees relate to one another in a genuine way?
In addition to observing your own behavior, it’s important to observe how employees act with one another. This is not about policing everyone’s behavior, but about being sensitive to possible transgressions. A negative comment today can turn into a pile of micro-aggressions tomorrow, draining employees’ motivation little by little.
Research shows that a negative comment can have a five times higher impact than a positive one. We love to ruminate on what is wrong, rather than concentrate on what is right. Unclarity or unpredictability from a leader can enhance the team’s stress levels and ultimately affect productivity.
The way people deal with conflict is an area that especially needs care and attention. According to psychologist Howard Markman, we have the capacity to listen to an opposite point of view for about 10 seconds before we feel the need to rebuff. This doesn’t leave much room for constructive conversation, especially if we are not trained for it.
Any person within the organization has the power to bring these observations to surface, but it is the responsibility of leaders to help re-balance the situation and nurture a culture of dialogue for things develop in the right way.
Development: how do you train people to operate in a constantly changing environment?
The next thing is supporting your people when dealing with an increasingly unclear future. Ask yourself: what future skills does my team need to stay engaged and driven? Well-thought training programs that elevate your employees’ level of resilience, creativity, and empathy helps them navigate uncertain waters and motivate them to stay with the company in the long run.
At the same time, it is important to keep your culture flexible enough for changes. If you employ many people in a short period of time, expect your culture to shift. Make the best of this new reality by welcoming fresh skills and know-how, while preserving the solid foundation: values, mission, ways of working, leadership principles etc.
Likewise, if your company is going through a tough time and you need to take the hard decision to lay people off (permanently or temporarily), you can expect this to have a major impact on the culture. Listen to your employees’ concerns and proceed with care – be as transparent as you possibly can and treat everyone with respect. Know that in times like this, you risk losing your top talent even when you aim to retain it.
Leadership coaching sessions can help you prepare for these times of transition. Make sure that you are well equipped to deal with not only the practical and financial aspects, but also with the emotional and cultural implications that your organization faces.
If you wish to discuss your company culture challenges with us and spar on concrete ideas to address them, drop us a line.
Article image: Annie Spratt for Unsplash