Why Culture Matters

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“Organizational culture matters!”  Few people argue against this assertion. However, many of the same agreeable people are at a loss about how to create or change culture even as they describe the counter-productive elements of their own organization’s culture. They crave a discrete set of steps that will lead them to a better culture by a certain date. By the same token, they don’t want the work of culture-building to take any additional time or compete with their regular tasks. Unfortunately, culture-building isn’t seen as their work, nor is there adequate appreciation for how not doing this work actually creates more work. Lastly, culture-building is often regarded as too amorphous and overwhelming; thus, it is put off in favor of work that results in more immediate gratification.


The second challenge is that leaders often think that culture-building is squarely in their domain. This simply isn’t true (not if we’re talking about a healthy culture). Organizational culture is more aptly characterized as a “crocodile” because it is bitten from the top down and the bottom up. Think of it this way: leaders may be the formal principal architects, but employees are the builders and have informal power. When architects and builders aren’t on the same page, the integrity of the structure is suspect. Further, if the structure collapses, the architects will shoulder the most blame because of their formal authority. However, regardless of the specific accusations, their greatest failure will have been their inability to create an environment of trust, mutual respect, and shared purpose, which are the cornerstones of strong organizational cultures. Without these elements, the organization will retain more “stuck” employees, keep confronting the same problems, and be less creative and resourceful in the face of problems. In turn, employees become less likely to take personal responsibility for challenges and outcomes while increasingly blaming organizational protocols and policies for failures. The irony is that study after study confirms that the best source of solutions are silent employees who don’t speak up because history has taught them that their feedback won’t be well-received or utilized. Finally, when an organization’s culture has devolved to this condition, the leaders (the architects) ARE shouldering a disproportionate share of the responsibility for the culture because they’ve taught their employees to disengage and have rewarded them for it.


It is for these reasons that culture-building should be approached like one would approach a bonafide change in business strategy or policy. In essence, it is just that. Like a strategy designed to promote tangible products and services, culture, which is the people component of how an organization operates, should be designed for alignment. Think of a marching band. During a half-time show, there is often a formation whereby the entire band comes together form a single line across the field. This is called a company front. In short, culture-building is the work of getting  employees, at all levels, to the company front with enthusiasm and precision (see featured photo for company front). When someone doesn’t make it to the company front, i.e., those instances whereby someone bucks the established culture, your drum majors and instrument section leaders must make note of the breach and go to work to reign it in. Failure to fix that one problem can ruin the whole show! This happens, because at its core, culture, like a half-time show, is about being in sync.  


Just like it isn’t possible to achieve a company front without planning the steps to get there, building or changing culture, which has serious bottomline implications, cannot be done without a gameplan. Below are five behaviors to strategize around during every step of changing or establishing organizational culture:


1) Collectively decide norms and values and disclose rationale. Decisions about norms and values should include discussions about encouraging employees to take risks and make mistakes. Establishing norms is important because norms should be a reflection of what is important. Moreover, all discretionary actions should be completed in a manner that preserves norms because respected norms create the scaffolding of your organization. As norms are put into place, explaining the basis for decisions and how they support broad goals helps employees understand how their specific behaviors and roles impact the organization. Finally, a serious discussion should take place around the line between holding employees accountable for negligent mistakes and encouraging them to try new things. Frankly, if your people aren’t making mistakes, your edge is quickly going from cutting to dull.


2) Communicate expectations and utilize a responsive communication style. Resist the temptation to think employees understand or trust messages and information simply because they came from leaders. Further, expectations and values need to be communicated over and over again and in via different methods (repetitiveness is particularly important if an organization has a history of failed or unfinished endeavors). Additionally, when employees behave in a manner that is consistent with the desired goals, acknowledging and praising them serves as a type of communication and reminder to other team members regarding the importance of the culture shift and reiterates that the shift isn’t optional. The more goals and values are openly discussed, the more people’s efforts toward alignment are acknowledged, the greater the likelihood that the shift will stick. Finally, the tone and channels of communication should shift according to urgency and context. Fluctuation helps keep the cultural shift from becoming part of the background noise of an organization. This matters because culture development is a long-term process that can easily slip in terms of active priorities.  


3) Decide deal-breakers as well as rewards. People should be very aware of the consequences for unacceptable behavior. Likewise, they should be rewarded for towing the line. Compare slights of organizational values and norms to the broken windows theory. The broken window theory is based on studies that show that overall crime in a community increases in both frequency and severity when petty crimes are ignored. Moreover, the same theory shows that when properties in distressed communities appear to be maintained and in good condition, they are less likely to be vandalized; however, when a window is broken, but not quickly repaired, opportunists notice and loot the property. The long and short of this tenet is this: without accountability, naysayers and resistant employees will destroy efforts to align employee behavior with cultural values. Address these behaviors quickly and consistently.    


4) Cultivate openness around accountability for violating culture and values, including consequences for leaders. There’s no faster way to kill employees’ buy-in into espoused values and culture than to make distinctions between what they are held accountable for versus leaders. Even the appearance of contradictions must be addressed; if there is a reason why the rules are different for different people, they should be disclosed. If an organization cannot disclose the rationale for differing levels of accountability, it should force itself to grapple with the reasons why.


For many leaders, this tenet demands a type of humility that flies in the face of traditional messages about what it means to be respected: how dare s/he say that to me or question my authority? Consider this: people are biologically predisposed to look for signs of lost safety, whether the threat is physical or mental (This is the basis of fight or flight). Further, neurology studies tell us that people are hardwired to pick up on the slightest of shifts in body language and tone; thus, openness and transparency require increased self-awareness and self-regulation. If openness and transparency aren’t truly welcome, people will see right through requests for honesty.  


5) Perform climate checks (aka actively seeking feedback). Climate checks are critical for developing a culture whereby each team member sees himself or herself as a stakeholder. Here’s what we know about asking for feedback: it often tells us more about the person giving the feedback than the actual situation. On the other hand, if enough of the same feedback is given, that feedback ought to be considered. In order to get a sense of the real climate versus one person’s obscure opinion, feedback must be sought systematically. Then, people should be told what will be done with their feedback. If there is no communication loop, people will eventually stop responding to climate check requests.  

Like most things in the life cycle of an organization, culture-building and culture-change take time, require specific intent, and frequent reiteration until they become firmly embedded. While the work can be significant, the outcome pays dividends, literally and metaphorically as culture impacts every aspect of how an organization operates.

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