8 keys to building and sustaining your company culture

A workplace atmosphere cannot be mandated from above. Work with employees at all levels to apply culture fundamentals and cultivate a collegial environment that promotes cooperation and productivity.

Are your top executives trying to impose a particular culture on your workforce?

Much has been said on this topic, but here are eight crucial culture change secrets I have learned that most leaders and self-anointed culture experts typically don’t understand nor use to improve results:

1. Culture is built through shared learning and mutual experience.

The foundation of effectively shifting or evolving culture does not come from popular approaches such as:

  • Defining values and “aligning” everything in the organization to them (even though this approach is widely advocated)
  • Training masses of people on values and expected behaviors
  • Focusing on clarity and alignment, engagement, or other areas of the work climate
  • Focusing on improving a few systems like hiring, performance management or rewards and recognition

Leaders can facilitate shared learning and mutual experience so improvements are clearly identified, captured and spread to deliver results throughout their team.

2. Don’t focus on trying to change culture.

Focus on a problem, challenge or goal and how culture is affecting the related work positively and negatively. Don’t create a general “culture plan” in which the connection to the results of the organization is unclear or debatable. Engage the organization to a much greater degree on one of your top priorities so you drive the shared learning, mutual experience and results faster than general culture work.

3. Results or consequences are necessary for any new cultural attribute to form.

Focusing the work on a top mission or performance priority will increase the likelihood of seeing results in a meaningful area and supporting the targeted cultural shift. Behaviors that lead to positive results will spread.

4. The vast majority of what you hear about culture is actually focused on climate.

It’s crucial to understand the underlying cultural norms or expectations that drive most of the behavior we see. Engagement and nearly all “culture” surveys measure aspects of the organizational climate. The climate is incredibly important, but understanding the underlying culture is essential for accelerating change efforts and delivering sustainable results.

My world changed when I learned about the language, measurement, and power of behavioral norms. People are bombarded by cultural norms at work. Edgar Schein once said that 90 percent of our behavior in organizations is driven by cultural rules.

The basic language of constructive, aggressive-defensive and passive-defensive expectations or norms from Human Synergistics helps me deal with client challenges every day:

  • Aggressive-defensive expectations—such as maintaining unquestioned authority, outperforming peers, never making a mistake, opposing things indirectly and others—don’t lead to sustainable effectiveness.
  • Passive-defensive expectations also exist, and these expectations—such as “not rocking the boat,” making a good impression, asking everybody what they think before acting, and doing things for the approval of others—can undermine effectiveness.
  • Constructive expectations —such as taking on challenging tasks, treating people as more important than things, and resolving conflicts constructively—lead to sustainable effectiveness for individuals, teams and the overall organization.

5. Define a “from/to shift” from defensive to constructive expectations.

Some leaders consistently misdiagnose their culture problems and jump to conclusions without gaining deeper cultural insight.

My favorite example is a top leader who thinks there is a major accountability or ownership problem in their organization. The actual cultural issue could be driven by perfectionistic, approval, avoidant, oppositional or other norms in the culture that leaders, including the chief executive, are perpetuating in many ways.

Focusing on the desired “to” behaviors does not address the root cause of the surface problems.

6. Repeatedly engage groups to define and continuously refine plans to improve results with a meaningful mission priority and support the targeted from/to shift.

The key is to move beyond general feedback approaches on mission priorities or culture-related areas (behaviors, values, etc.). Instead, engage groups in prioritized improvement feedback for a key mission or performance priority (growth, customer experience, etc.) that will also support the targeted from/to shift.

For example: How should we improve our new customer growth plans and shift from perfectionistic aspects of our culture to an achievement-oriented focus as a team? Focus improvements on a mission priority (what) and the targeted cultural shift (how). It’s also important to identify positive aspects of the culture that can be employed as part of improvement efforts.

Plan to re-engage groups periodically to provide prioritized feedback on what’s working and what’s not after you make progress on implementation (typically every three to six months).

7. It’s critical to adjust management, communication and motivation systems/habits to translate plans to effective action and shift the operating model.

The problem in most organizations lies not in identifying improvements that will have a positive impact on culture but in implementing them. There are three areas that nearly all organizations involved in culture-related change efforts must refine and connect:

  • Management systems—especially the basic habits for senior leadership to define, monitor and manage strategic priorities, measures and improvement plans.
  • Communication systems—especially implementing or improving the formal and informal habits for communicating the status of priorities and plans along with regularly obtaining feedback for improvement.
  • Motivation systems—especially intentional efforts to dramatically increase the recognition of team members that display the targeted constructive “to” behavior in the from/to shift and achieve results.

8. Culture transformation starts with personal transformation.

Top leaders must determine how their behavior affects the behavior of others. Is their impact constructive, passive or aggressive? How are they reinforcing the current culture? What individual and team development efforts must be managed in accord with the overall organization transformation?

Apply these insights as part of your improvement plans and unlock the power of culture to support your mission:

1. Define the purpose of your improvement effort and complete qualitative (focus groups, interviews, etc.), and likely, quantitative culture analysis (survey). Obtain external support if you are not experienced with this work or want to increase the likelihood of success.

2. Engage top leaders to review the results of the culture analysis and capture key takeaways. Define a top mission or performance priority (growth, customer experience, etc.). Develop initial plans to engage the organization in new ways to improve related strategies/plans and support a from/to shift in the culture.

3. Engage the broader organization and obtain prioritized feedback as part of the effort to finalize improvement plans. Define when these groups will be re-engaged to provide prioritized feedback on what’s working and what’s not.

4. Manage the change as part of refined management, communication and motivation systems. Connect any organization development plans to individual development efforts, starting with top leaders.

These insights are only a small part of what’s necessary for meaningful culture change and sustainable results. They help to build initial momentum and results necessary for any cultural improvement to emerge.

We need more culturally intelligent leaders. What culture insights or “secrets” can you add to help leaders make a meaningful difference?

A version of this article first appeared on CultureUniversity.


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