Contrary to popular belief, a company’s culture is not formed by publishing eloquently written mission statements and decorating office walls with them or by distributing cool, laminated pocket versions of the statement. Culture may be “defined” by these processes, but it is certainly not formed in this way.
Forming a culture is surprisingly simple. So simple, in fact, that it can occur without much effort. Many CEOs and leaders don’t realize their culture is shaped and refined every day. Here’s how it happens: a business starts off with a good product or service and grows. At some point, the founders develop a set of lofty principles to define their culture and mission. The business does well and managers (not leaders) are hired or promoted quickly to accommodate the growth. These same managers are instructed to preach about the mission and company principles, refer to them in employee meetings, share them with customers and publish them in company memos.
Being the humans that they are, these managers (and oftentimes the CEOs) set about “leading” in their own style and fashion. Without realizing it, from their everyday actions and attitudes, the managers who preach the gospel of the culture begin to routinely make decisions that are inconsistent with the company’s core beliefs. It usually starts off small and, perhaps, is insignificant. But employees are watching, and when they see a pattern of actions that don’t match the words, trust is broken, and a cancer begins to grow. If allowed to continue, the culture eventually becomes politically motivated, bureaucratic and arrogant.
Many companies unknowingly make decisions that are counter-cultural. Here’s a real-life example: A manufacturing company asked us to conduct an organizational review of employment policies and practices to help identify and correct compliance vulnerabilities and inconsistencies. At the time, we learned that the drivers who delivered their products perceived that they were “second-class citizens.” The leaders at the company wondered how this could be when the drivers were well compensated for their work. We discovered that the company had adopted a formula for calculating pay for time off (holidays, vacation, sick time) at a lower rate of pay than the employee would have received had he or she actually been working. Although the result of this practice was unintentional, it led to the drivers’ perception that the company did not value their hard-earned, accrued personal time off. In addition, the practice was clearly counter to the values and the culture the owners wanted to promote. Of course, once this was pointed out, they immediately changed the practice and were able to restore the drivers’ trust.
How does this happen? The people who develop practices, like the one above, do not understand that culture is the result of everyday decisions and actions. Culture is shaped primarily by what a company chooses to measure and control, what it pays attention to, how it handles organizational crises, how managers coach and develop people, how employees are compensated and rewarded, and the processes by which the company selects, promotes, retains, and terminates people.
On a secondary level, a company’s culture is further defined by the physical work environment, the rituals and events the company chooses to celebrate, the organizational structure, and, to a degree, by the written mission statement. Every company has a culture. Even a seeming lack of culture is a culture. While an organization’s leaders may not be able to articulate a company’s culture, the employees always can.
Companies with healthy cultures breed happy, productive employees who have intense loyalty that doesn’t waver, even during tough times. These same employers naturally attract, develop, and retain talent better than their counterparts, and their leaders aren’t spending an inordinate amount of time solving “people” problems.
Is your culture living up to your expectations? If not, consider these four culture-enhancing strategies:
1. Hire only those people whose actions, experiences and lives exemplify your core values. You cannot change inherent attitudes in people, so hire people (especially leaders) who believe in your values, philosophy and mission. Establish a comprehensive, effective process for identifying and hiring talent. Take time to get to know the people before you bring them into the “family.” Be vigilant and do not compromise your standards.
2. Take the temperature of the workforce on a regular basis. If you want to know how your employees really think and feel about your company — the culture, pay, benefits, recent changes, or management — have an outside third party conduct a confidential employee survey. You may be surprised by the results. (Hint: If you conduct a survey, be ready to listen and willing to respond to employee concerns. Failure to follow through can diminish trust.)
3. Walk the talk. Once organizational values are well defined and articulated, ensure that all leaders in the company make decisions and treat people in accordance with these values and the company culture and philosophy. Do not tolerate arrogance or bullying. Aggressively confront and eradicate cultural abuses.
4. Periodically conduct an organizational assessment. Carefully review company systems, processes, and policies to ensure they send the right message and promote and encourage the values and culture you are trying to build.
Perhaps the greatest words of wisdom to heed as you address cultural change and development were spoken by Arthur Ashe, the renowned sportsman, author and humanitarian: “To achieve greatness, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
Does culture matter? You bet it does. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone at Uber.