Organizational culture is one of those topics that’s typically valued and discussed but rarely acted on. Mention the importance of culture, or cite the old bromide that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and you’ll get serious looks and nodding heads. But ask yourself or your teams how they proactively created their desired culture that day. You’ll likely receive a blank stare.
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While few people question its importance, most company cultures are developed with little forethought or active management. At its simplest, culture is the “operating system” of your team or organization that defines how individuals act, behave and interrelate.
As leaders, we’re responsible for thinking about the culture we want to create and actively instilling that in the organization. Fail to do this, and you’ll get a default culture of sorts. If great leaders and managers surround you, perhaps that default culture will be fantastic, but in too many instances, it will default to your team’s worst tendencies.
It’s easy to overlook culture as “touchy-feely stuff” best left to HR. Still, as the “operating system” of your team or organization, it serves as a driver of essential metrics from employee retention to productivity. Here are three easy ways to start actively managing the culture in your team:
Define the elements of your culture
Rather than allowing a “culture of default,” spend the time writing out a few key statements that you want to define your culture, ideally in conjunction with your key leaders. Avoid vision-y language that doesn’t mean anything. “An inclusive culture enabled by respect and valuing each individual” sounds nice and might get you a high-five from a consultant, but it doesn’t actually mean anything that someone could act upon.
If you’re going to use words like respect, take the time to define what it means. A seemingly-simple word like respect could mean that no one questions leadership and merely follows orders, or it could mean that individual contributions to critical decisions are accepted and encouraged. It can help to think through typical interactions in your company and define the behaviors and actions you want your team to take. Should they actively debate or seek consensus? Is speed more important than agreement? How much risk should be allowed and accepted?
The goal is not cute sentences for a poster, but enough detail that your leaders can model behaviors that create and cultivate these elements of your culture.
Culture is most actively cultivated by you and your fellow leaders. Team members look to their leadership for guidance on how to act and behave and determine what’s acceptable and encouraged within the organization. All the posters, employee handbooks and training classes in the world will do little to override the daily interactions with leaders and the lessons they instill each day, knowingly or unwittingly.
For example, if you want to create a culture focused on action and momentum rather than endless meetings, constantly complaining to your team members or doing the “humblebrag” routine about how you’re so important you spend 99% of your day in meetings will create the exact opposite culture. Similarly, promoting a culture of thoughtful risk-taking while simultaneously requesting that every minor decision goes through a gauntlet of analysis and approvals will offset volumes of good intentions and change management programs.
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Culture is most valuable during challenging moments. When facing a critical decision or extraordinary challenge, pause to consider how your response will demonstrate the cultural “operating system” you want to create. If you can model the behaviors that you want others to exemplify, you’ll do wonders for actively creating your organization’s culture.
Spot check your culture
The ultimate success of building culture is that it becomes embedded in how your team conducts itself in its daily actions and interactions. Spot check your progress both actively and passively. For the former, chat with line-level staff and ask how they’d describe your organization’s culture to a potential employee. If they stumble and stammer or you get wildly varying descriptions, you have some work to do.
Similarly, if they parrot back bromides they think you want to hear, ask for an example or two of where they’ve seen culture impact the team. If they answer readily versus stumbling, you’ll quickly determine whether the culture is taking root or is merely seen as some nice words that can be devoutly ignored.
Just as you should think through how you want to demonstrate culture in times of stress, observe your teams in these situations to see if their interactions are guided and enabled by the culture you’re building. If not, take the time to discuss why cultural norms were ignored and use this information to double down on the above techniques.
Ideally, your team members at all levels should see culture as a tool that helps them make better decisions, work effectively together and have a shared “operating system” that makes your workplace successful and enjoyable.
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