Founder and Chief Culture Officer of Ideal resultsInc. Author of the new book “Culture Ignited: 5 Disciplines for Adaptive Leadership.”
If you’re worried that your company culture is on the wrong track, you might be right. But in fact, most business leaders don’t recognize they have a problem until it’s become toxic.
An article in MIT Sloan Management Review puts it well: “It can be a challenge for leaders to ‘see’ culture up close. Like fish unaware of water, senior leaders can become too accustomed to their own view of culture.”
Then a crisis hits and it becomes clear that the root cause is buried deep in the corporate culture. Once leaders recognize the problem, it is human nature to impatiently demand urgent change. But the harmful culture evolved over a long period of time. It didn’t happen overnight and it can’t be solved overnight. It’s a marathon and requires long-term effort; it’s not a quick sprint to the goal.
Why is it so important to improve company culture? An analysis shared in MIT Sloan Management Review of 34 million online employee profiles found that a toxic culture was the number 1 reason for U.S. workers who quit their jobs in 2021. The key elements in such a culture were a lack of diversity, equality and inclusion; workers who felt they were not respected; and unethical leadership behavior.
One in four American workers dread going to work, and nearly half have thought about leaving their current employer, according to a survey. report 2019 by the Association for Human Resource Management. Net income is a cost of revenue of $223 billion over five years.
So, how can you improve company culture? These are the five steps I’ve identified through my hands-on experience with clients and as president of a culture change consultancy.
Decide what you want your culture to be.
What are the characteristics of a cheerful, thriving company culture as far as you are concerned? Every organization is different. You can’t copy someone else’s culture or hire someone from a company with a successful culture and expect them to magically infuse it into your business.
It is important that leadership initiates and continues to support the process of defining culture. However, it is equally essential that the voices of a wide range of employees are heard. Different approaches include:
• Have your direct reports discuss culture with members of their team.
• Use an internal social media platform (if you have one) to solicit input from the entire workforce.
• Organize a company-wide competition to develop a statement of purpose.
Translate the results of these efforts into a written commitment that is reflected in all corporate communications and is modeled by leaders. Your culture should be embraced and lived by everyone.
Evaluate your culture.
An honest look at your company’s current culture, especially the negatives, is required. Conduct interviews (with all your employees) and engagement surveys. You need to get as complete a picture as possible.
Basic questions to ask include: How would you describe our company culture? What words come to mind? Have you witnessed changes in culture, good or bad, and what are they? What do you think are the reasons for these changes?
Ask these questions in an environment where employees feel comfortable. You may be required to promise the participant’s anonymity.
Make a plan.
If you understand what your culture is and what you would like it to be, you can develop a strategy to get there. One thing I know for sure is that changing or reviving your culture never happens by chance. Planning is essential because your intervention strategies must be intentional and purposeful. A gap analysis helps with this.
As you conduct this analysis, dig deep into employee behavior at every level and compare them to the company values you’ve identified. Are there meaningful disconnections? If this is the case, make sure you make plans to correct it. Otherwise, your culture will become toxic. Part of the planning process requires refining the company statement, so it’s simple and to the point – and clearly communicated.
Track your progress.
Many people think it’s impossible to measure something as “soft” as culture, but it’s not only achievable; it is also critical. Treat culture the same way customer-facing organizations treat their customers. Use simple surveys regularly to track progress, especially in times of rapid change. Without measurement there is no responsibility and it may be difficult to correct course.
Consider measurement from two angles: desired business outcomes and behavioral/qualitative outcomes. Start with business goals and recognize the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Then identify the necessary actions to close the gaps. Do the same for behavioral/qualitative outcomes. At my company, we recommend Net Promoter Scores as an important metric with some monthly and quarterly reviews. Surveys should be frequent enough to measure progress.
Keep your new culture.
Changing your culture is a big undertaking – and there is no end to it. Your new culture needs to be embraced and lived by everyone in your organization. If someone isn’t a good match in the beginning, he won’t last. This means you need to consider cultural fit in the hiring process.
Describe the company culture in detail and ask the interviewee what specifically appeals to them. Show them the office, meet current employees, and ask for feedback. Personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can also help.
You also need to allow your people at all levels of the organization to be culture champions. An important element is communication. Keep culture at the forefront by talking about it in meetings, conversations and everyday life.
As individuals, many find it difficult to change their habits, so this in a company with hundreds or thousands of individuals is a mission not to be taken lightly. Approach it in a systematic, thoughtful way and realize that it is a long-term effort – a marathon – to reach the finish line.
And know that once you get there, you can’t rest on your laurels. Stay aware that the culture of the organization is going to change and evolve. It must change and evolve.
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