More than ever, business professionals are talking about culture – even when they don’t use that word. When business leaders discuss their need for talent, retention, workforce, staffing – really anything that has to do with people – they are talking about culture.
Continuing a trend from the last decade, CEO’s across industries continue to report people and workforce issues (often referred to as the “war for talent”) as a top business priority. Employers have two primary levers they can pull to improve their chances of attracting and retaining the talent they need: a) compensation and b) the employment experience they offer. Both are important, but the latter is the one that has the most lasting impact when companies get it right.
Employment experience is increasingly cited as the number one driver for employees when choosing an employer. In fact, 56% of 5000+ global employees surveyed in a 2019 Glassdoor/Harris Poll said they feel company culture is more important than salary when it comes to job satisfaction.
Statistics aside, there is an obvious link between offering an employment experience people appreciate and a business’s ability to attract, retain, and motivate their workforce. If you are a culture skeptic who doesn’t see that clear connection, then read no further. This article is not for you.
What Exactly is Company Culture?
BetterCulture’s favorite definition for culture is: “the attitudes and behaviors a group of people come to expect from one another.”
- How does the company demonstrate its values?
- Are colleagues collaborative or competitive?
- Do employees smile and greet each other in the hallway?
- Do employee’s often pitch in to help colleagues?
- Are cameras expected to be on during virtual calls?
- Do teams regularly celebrate and socialize together?
- Are new employees made to feel welcome?
- Do employees question, challenge, and push each other to get better?
- Do colleagues build deep personal relationships and make time for social niceties, or is it straight-to-business?
- Is questioning or challenging senior level leaders welcomed and even appreciated?
- Is there a general sense of upbeat optimism in the workplace?
- Do senior level leaders take an active interest in the success and happiness of their employees?
- What type of work ethic and work-life balance is expected?
- Are employees regularly shown that their efforts are appreciated?
- Does cultural contribution weigh into performance evaluations and compensation decisions?
- What’s the dress code?
- How does the organization demonstrate social or community responsibility?
- Are dogs welcome in the office?
- Etc., etc., etc.
This is only a short list of examples of what “culture” can mean within an organization. And looking at that list, it should be clear that these examples are things that employees (and perspective employees) are likely to have opinions about.
If employers want to attract and retain talent, they neglect their culture at their own peril.
The Formula for a Great Workplace Culture
This is a good time to note that the process we outline in this article works whether your culture is already out-of-this-world AMAZING…or whether your culture needs a LOT of work.
Our clients with the strongest cultures (even organizations that have placed #1 in consecutive Best Places to Work competitions) benefit from this process. In fact, those organizations are the ones who adhere to this process most closely…because that’s how they got to where they are!
Think of a body builder or a professional athlete. Are they more or less likely to follow a strict nutrition and workout routine than someone who is out of shape? The answer is that they are much more likely to follow an intentional and disciplined routine because those are the habits that helped them become the best of the best!
So here is your company culture workout routine. This concrete, step-by-step process will help any organization create a stronger workplace culture. If you follow these five steps (and it’s not easy), you are nearly guaranteed a strong and vibrant company culture.
Step 1: Commit to the VALUE of Culture.
Great cultures are not achieved – not stumbled into – by accident; you have to want it enough to work at it. Question: So why should you passionately want to get culture right? Answer: Because it will be the foundation for your company’s success.
This really should not be all that hard of a sell – not all that hard to grasp – but some leaders simply don’t. So here are the facts. When a company gets its culture right, several good things happen. For example, turnover goes down, retention goes up, customer complaints go down, customer satisfaction goes up, employee errors go down, innovation goes up, insurance costs go down, sales go up.
So, step one – and it is a critical one – is to genuinely commit to the value of culture. It should be a priority and constant focus for those in top leadership positions. But that won’t be enough. Building and protecting cultural health must also be a focus for middle management – and those in supervisory positions must have the skills and knowledge necessary to build and protect that culture.
But if you want to enter the elite stratosphere of top cultures, you will also need to engage front-line employees in the battle for cultural health. In these exceptional companies, front line employees value their work culture, protect cultural norms, and view the culture of their workplace as a source of distinction and pride.
So, in plain language, building and keeping a great culture requires buy-in from top executives, mid-level supervisors, and front-line employees. Where all three are aligned on the common goal of a healthy and productive workplace culture, remarkable things start to happen.
C-suite: Culture must be an enduring focus of those in the C-suite. Top level executives are responsible for establishing a vision for workplace culture. The hazier the vision, the less effective they will be. It is best when top executives embrace an overtly stated culture code specifying the attitudes and behaviors that are expected to characterize the interactions between employees within the company. And yes, this does take some effort to create, but it will be time well spent. More about this in Step 2 below.
Actions speak louder than words. So as easy as it may be for members of the C-suite to profess alignment with cultural expectations at a strategic planning session or offsite retreat, the proof in the pudding will be in their day-to-day interactions. And executives be warned: it takes a lot less time to tear down a strong company culture than it does to build one back up.
Top executives need not be perfect nor the most energetic or articulate at championing company culture, but they must avoid like the plague any belittlement or undercutting of those who are at the forefront of that effort. Every member of the C-Suite needs to buy-in to the importance of culture and make a good faith effort to conduct themselves in a way that is consistent with those expectations.
Bottom line: Because it is built slowly and knocked down easily, company culture is a long game that needs to be played intentionally and deliberately. It must remain an enduring C-level strategic objective if any company expects to steadily improve their culture.
Middle-management: Decades of research by McKinsey, Gallup and many others have shown the largest determinant of the happiness, job satisfaction, and overall engagement of an individual employee is the relationship that employee has with their direct supervisor. Thus, the second level of alignment on company culture must happen at the manager level. Every leader – from department head to front-line manager – must understand the cultural vision for the company and have the knowledge and skills that are needed to turn that vision into reality.
Employees: The third level of cultural alignment is front-line employees. Every employee has the opportunity to contribute to the workplace culture. They also have the opportunity to damage it. Unless organizations are utilizing innovative resources like BetterCulture’s 20 Tenets of Culture, the degree to which front-line employees will be aligned with the company’s cultural vision and equipped to contribute to that culture will largely be left to chance. Great cultures are created in companies who empower and encourage those who are naturally inclined to contribute positively to culture to influence those who aren’t.
Step 2: Envision the Culture you Want.
So, you are ready to buy into creating a great company culture. But how clearly can you articulate the culture you want? If you set out on a journey without knowing the destination, the odds of getting there are slim. The same is true with company culture.
Most organizations have a listing of something akin to company values. Common examples are things like: Integrity, Communication, Trust, Respect, Accountability, Etc. They often sound noble, but they seldom actually drive day-to-day interactional culture (Remember: culture is best defined as the attitudes and behaviors a group of people come to expect from one another).
As an example, “Communication” is much more ambiguous than something like “Pick up the phone and call” (which might mean that employees are expected to promptly call one another directly when there are questions, conflicts, or misunderstandings in internal communication). It’s challenging to give feedback or coaching on something as amorphous as “communication,” but it’s easy (and extremely helpful to employee development) to be able to say, “Why didn’t you pick up the phone?”
We encourage clients to create a more behaviorally specific culture code. A few examples of cultural expectations/values/code that we’ve seen work well for organizations are:
- Assume positive intent
- Check your ego
- Embrace weirdness
- Show up when needed
- Be driven to learn
- Show your appreciation
- Bring it every day
- Deliver ‘wow’ through service
- Be invested in others’ success
- Own your responsibilities
- Build open and honest relationships
- Embrace and drive change
If you’d like to see how your company culture code or cultural values measure up, read our article: Can Your Company Pass our Culture Code Quiz?
Step 3: Understand the Culture you Have
Once you have clarity on the culture you want to have, it’s time to get an accurate assessment of the culture you actually have.
It is common for executives to overestimate the health of their culture. This is because (a) employees tend to be on their best behavior when executives are around and (b) most people feel compelled to tell leaders what they want to hear. Just as information often does not accurately go down the chain, it certainly does not accurately go up the chain!
Before you start “treatment” we strongly suggest you start with an accurate diagnosis. In the sphere of culture, that diagnosis is best done by the administration of a high-quality employee engagement survey.
There are many effective cultural health surveys available on the market. Certain surveys like the Gallup Q12 are quick and easy to implement, offering a strong, albeit narrow, research-based overall sense of how your employees feel about their organization. Other organizations like Quantum Workplace offer more robust platforms that enable ongoing pulse surveys, employee lifecycle monitoring, and other features like internal communication, employee recognition, goal setting and performance management.
But if you are looking for the best, deep-dive, comprehensive assessment of the health of your culture, there is no better option than the BetterCulture Survey. Our proprietary employee engagement survey provides a detailed view of the health of any organization’s culture.
We slice and dice your employee feedback data by location, department, manager, race, gender, employment status, and just about any other variable that is important to you. And perhaps most importantly of all, we can tie your specific results to potent treatment options via our BetterCulture product and service offerings – all designed to help you strengthen your culture.
Step 4: Plan to Achieve the Culture you Want
At this point you have a vision of the culture you want and a good assessment of the culture you have. This difference is what BetterCulture co-founder Dr. Kim Hoogeveen describes as the “GAP” in his TEDx-Omaha Talk. It’s time to get to work closing that gap.
BetterCulture’s approach to building culture is to attack the challenge on two fronts – both from the top-down (i.e., through the influence of “leadership”) and from the bottom-up (i.e., through the influence of star (think role model) front-line, non-management employees). Here are the essential elements of a best-practice culture shaping plan:
- Decide who will be accountable for building and maintaining culture in your organization. BetterCulture calls this person (or very small group of people – NOT a committee) your “chief culture officer” (CCO). We’ve written extensive articles on this topic (like this one), but the short of it is that you need someone with the knowledge, tools, resources, and power in your system who is continuously monitoring and driving your culture forward. This does not need to be a formal title of a full-time position (especially if you are a smaller organization) but it does need to be a specific person who unambiguously has this ball. It may be the owner, CEO, CHRO, CCO, or someone else, but the key is one individual has the task to monitor and drive culture. Do NOT just read over this and ignore it. If you do, you are going to fail. Is that clear enough? We have almost never had a client make lasting gains in cultural health without a specific person empowered to drive this effort. Again, that person will need:
- Knowledge (BetterCulture can teach the skills and processes)
- Tools (BetterCulture has built great tools and can provide you access)
- Support (BetterCulture is here to provide community and support)
- Power within your system (that part is up to you!)
- Ensure that leaders across your organization know how to build better culture on their teams (the “Top-Down” part). We encourage our clients to take on a truly ambitious goal: that every employee will have the opportunity to report to a great supervisor. How amazing would that be! Well – the pathway to that goal involves two key steps: 1) promote the right people to leadership positions and 2) teach those leaders how to create a positive employee experience and strong team culture. BetterCulture provides the premier leadership development training on this subject on the market. There are three ways to access our leadership development training:
- Attend our In-Person MindSet Leadership Program. We operate our flagship 2-day leadership development event at least once every calendar year in Omaha, Nebraska.
- Enroll in our On-Demand MindSet Leadership Program. This “best-of” self-study version of our In-Person MindSet Leadership Program is available on-demand (and through a handy mobile app) for anyone who wants to invest in their own leadership growth. The program is comprised of 56 micro-learning videos taught by BetterCulture co-founder and 5-time #1 Best Place to Work CEO, Dr. Kim Hoogeveen. It’s broken into seven useful modules and comes with an 80+ page full-color Study Guide that will become a lasting resource.
- Bring BetterCulture training into your organization. We regularly work with corporate clients who are looking to implement a first-rate leadership development experience for their executives, managers, and/or emerging leaders. We can offer live training or on-demand resources that can be facilitated by internal staff. We have plans that appeal to all different price points. Drop us an email if you want to learn more.
- The goals of any leadership development initiative (especially one that intends to address employee experience and workplace culture) should accomplish the following things:
- Create a unified vision of what it means to be a leader. An effective training will bring clarity to the question: “What does it mean to be a leader in our organization?”
- Create a common language among leaders in the organization. Building this common language (in our case sometimes making use of creative terminology) enables leaders to communicate more efficiently and effective about issues affecting the organization.
- Teach practical, real-world tested, skills that participants can actually use. The leadership training industry has a well-deserved, dubious reputation among some people who have attended hazy, wandering, self-aggrandizing, or supposedly “motivational” sessions in the past. Understandably, participants may be less than enthusiastic at the prospect of attending another team building or leadership training program. BetterCulture has seen (and understands) that skepticism in at least some attendees at every training we have done. We also have been able to win over the vast majority of those initial skeptics. How? By making sure our trainings focus on only the most powerful theory and heavily focusing on specific tactics and skills that can be deployed in the real-world.
- Have a credible presenter. No matter how impressive the content of any training program may be, it’s challenging to garner attendee attention and buy-in without them feeling that the person they are learning from is a credible expert on the subject.
- Give homework. If you want attendees to learn, you have to motivate them to practice using the skills they are learning on your leadership development program in their day-to-day role. The right type of challenges, activities, or projects will motivate participants to try new skills and stretch their capabilities.
- Build the Influence of your Star Front-Line Employee (the “Bottom-Up” aspect of cultural heath). The single most overlooked aspect of building company culture is the influence that front-line employees exert on their peers. At least 90% (and likely more like 99%) of the focus and conversation about building exceptional workplace culture centers around leadership’s role in that process. And for good reason; leadership is essential, as we’ve described above.
But imagine that you’re a new employee in a large organization. You’ve been told by your hiring manager, HR, and the onboarding team what the company culture is like, what to expect, and what’s expected of you. But then you’re turned loose to start working your actual job. You sit right next to a colleague who has been with the organization for 5 years.
Let’s imagine two scenarios:
- First, imagine your new colleague is lazy, cynical, disconnected from the company mission, disrespectful of your mutual supervisor, and negative about leadership as a whole (BetterCulture calls these employees “Vacuums”). What kind of impact does that have on your behavior and employee experience
- Second, imagine your new colleague is positive, energetic, proud of the company mission and culture, and raves about your mutual supervisor and the company leadership as a whole (BetterCulture calls these employees “Stars”). What kind of impact does that have on your behavior and employee experience?
- Personal/professional development for every employee
- Stronger team relationships and functioning, and
- Improved overall company culture