Your Culture Is … As Your Organization Does

culture is as organization does

In initial conversations with company executives, 92 times out of 100, they’ll call us and say something like, “We’ve heard you’re culture change experts and we need to change our culture. We’re thinking we want it to be more fun like that Tony what-his-name guy’s company—umm, Zappos. Can you do a “we ‘heart’ employees” (I say tongue-in-cheek) campaign or something to help us with that?”

Or: “We’ve had a lot of good people leave lately and we heard from the employee opinion survey that our culture stinks. We’re thinking maybe we should start having ‘Jeans Friday.’ You think that would be a good start?”

And, here’s yet another recent one: “We need our employees to be self-starters—more motivated, more innovative.  What do we do with our culture to make our employees more that way?”

It’s not that simple
My inside-my-head voice is groaning “OMG. Are you kidding me?”

And, my actual voice, out of wanting to truly help this poor soul, says something like “I’m glad you called us. Let’s talk for a few minutes about this thing called culture and what you’re really trying to get at with your objectives….”

‘Culture’ is one of those mystical and elusive terms. It often surfaces in a hallway, manager and all-hands discussions as if it’s a kind of separate entity of its own, something that made itself, something that could be changed or tinkered with independently of the other elements that make up your business … and when we talk about “changing it,” it’s spoken about as if it’s a switch you can flip, a lever you can pull, and an initiative we need to implement.

I suppose if it were like that, it might make things simpler. But it’s not.

Outcomes and behaviors
Your culture is an outcome of what you do, what you say, and how you do things around here. It’s about the ways your business practices values, leadership actions, and employee attitudes—and behaviors show up everyday. It’s how an organization operates. And, you cement this said culture over time with actions or inactions, paralysis or knee-jerk decisions, appreciation or hard-driving perfectionism, rewarding brilliant lone-star’s or compromising team players, giving responsibility or micromanaging tasks…

I learned along the way, culture is behavior. That’s all it is; culture is people’s behaviors. ~Ginni Rometty

The individuals in your organization are essentially sharing patterns of behavior that they all observed, learned, and in more than a handful of cases, eventually assimilated to or rather, quit bucking if they were to “possibly survive here.”

Your culture might just have the chance to really change when you get to the real stuff. Things like espresso machines, free lunches, and business casual aren’t the point.

Look to the source
If you want a culture that oozes more positive juju, then you have to look at how it was formed in the first place—those things that are contributing to making it that way. What you do advertently or perhaps inadvertently do, say, and convey as a company and as leadership?

Here are some of the questions we ask our clients to explore about themselves to begin really deep diving into how we do things around here and subsequently how the “culture” got to where it is now.

  • How do you set priorities and goals? Is this process consistent with the kind of culture you want to have?
  • How does accountability show up in your organization – how is it established and maintained? Are there accountabilities for line-level employees but not for leadership? Do you have the appropriate metrics or do employees feel they have impossible standards to meet?
  • How is information shared? Does leadership only share on a need-to-know basis? Are employees fearful to share and thus, hoard information because that’s what keeps them valuable to the company? Does leadership share early and share often, even before they feel a strategy is ready for prime time?
  • What are the priorities in company communications to employees? What is it that is actually getting airtime in your organization? Is it something the employees can get behind, they can understand, they feel proud of?
  • How is the truth shared and sought? Do things get pushed under the rug? Are things out in the open?
  • How do decisions get made? Who is involved in this process? Is it leadership ‘do the thinking’ and employees ‘do the doing’ without opportunity for input?
  • How does delegation occur? Is it truly effective delegation or is it relegation? Ultimately one party wiping their hands of it and passing the buck.
  • How are ideas shared? Are they occurring freely? Do employees want to contribute their best ideas to the company knowing they’ll be given a fair shake or chance to succeed?
  • How does collaboration occur? That is, does true collaboration actually occur? Are people incented to contribute to the collective or only as individual performers and how well they do their respective jobs?
  • How are rewards given? Are brilliant jerks rewarded even if their ruthless personalities degrade morale and teamwork? Are rewards given inconsistently across the organization?
  • How do punishments occur and how are mistakes handled? Do people that hit a bad patch get another chance? Does anyone ever really get fired for poor or non-performance? Do some people get worse punishment simply because they have different managers?
  • How valued is learning? Are you the type of organization that helps people to grow and deepen their expertise—or do you tend to pigeonhole and hold someone back because you need them in a specific role or effort? Do you provide opportunities for mentoring and growth—or do your employees hide their lack of experience and understanding because they’re afraid they’ll be penalized for not knowing?
  • How are people’s efforts appreciated? Are you the type of organization that gives an “A” for effort? Or, is “hard work” irrelevant with knowledge that only effectiveness (not effort) is rewarded?
  • How are risks encouraged and taken? Does risk taking apply to everyone or just a few of the top rung? Do you encourage innovation and a fail-fast mindset? Do you say you want innovation but shoulder employees with metrics squarely based on execution?
  • How are successes celebrated? Is it something that is done publicly? Is it something seldom done? Are stories shared far and wide? Are successes celebrated in a way that is meaningful to employees? Have you asked them what is meaningful to them?

You can also use these as a guide to think about the organization you want to have—and subsequently, a culture that better matches and is more congruent with your objectives as a business.

Are there areas or questions we’re missing? We welcome your comments and would love to hear where you think culture lives in organizations.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from robertsgolden.com.

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Sara Roberts is an author and “go-to” expert on organizational transformation, culture, and building purpose-led companies. She’s an executive consultant to Fortune 500 leaders, a sought-after keynote speaker, and an entrepreneur. Sara founded and sold Roberts Golden, a boutique consultancy, where she and her team worked with nearly a quarter of the Fortune 100, over its 12-year span, to help transform their cultures and ability to lead.

Her latest book, "Nimble, Focused, Feisty: Organizational Cultures that Win in the New Era and How to Create Them," will launch on August 16, 2016. You can pre-order it here from Amazon, or learn more at NimbleFocusedFeisty.com.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Patrick Trottier

    Hi Sara – all great points… yes, it is what people experience, and are those ‘experiences’ congruent and consistent to ‘the stated values’ over time…. embedding stated values into the strategic and operational systems, processes, behaviors and relationships is critical – in my humble opinion…

    How many times have I got senior leaders (?) to take down those pretty, framed value statements and give people ‘experiences’ that are congruent with desired values.

    I’ve stated this many times, leaders (?) want a magic wand rather than doing the work that is part of their responsibilities to create an organizational culture that attracts, retains good people and supports the strategic and operational focus. The worst thing to do is try to emulate what another organization is doing (old term; ‘best practices’.

    BTW – you brought our a good point where organizational / cultural change is still seen as another ‘project’ outside of base business as moving the culture from A to B as an isolated thing through ‘change management’ or ‘event change’ workshops, rah-rah get-togethers, or having ‘Jeans Fridays’ rather ‘seeing’ organizational change and cultural development as a natural, and continually emergent process over time…

    Unless there is a shift in emotional and cognitive frameworks in leadership regarding how they ‘see’ organizational culture and ‘self’, all the pretty things that will be offered will just end up in greater mistrust and frustration. People are not stupid – they see through the facade – because they experience the facade. IMO

    However, there is a great need to support leadership to understand the dynamics of culture and that culture is an ‘outcome’ rather than a ‘thing’ in itself…

    Just my two cents…

    All the best…