In times like this, a conscious focus on company culture becomes critical. Too often, culture operates in the background and it is rarely, if ever, thought about. Yet, organizations who want to show up differently in the world or achieve different business results must consider the impact culture has on their future.
What is organizational culture?
If asked to describe Starbucks, Nordstrom’s or Google in 5 words; could you? The words used to portray our favorite companies, or even the business we work for, often aligns with key elements of its culture. How would you describe your company?
As leaders, employees and customers, we experience company culture through the organization’s mission and values, hiring practices, customer service strategies, collaboration methods and other policies and procedures. When we read or write a business review, it is often a description of cultural elements that are reflected in our work or consumer experience.
In the simplest of terms, culture is the way people within an organization act or “the way things are done around here”. It is how our employees think and behave, as well as, the beliefs (good and bad) employees have in common. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, acceptable and rewarded and alternately, what is opposed, intolerable and “punished”.
“Corporate culture doesn’t happen by accident – and if it does, you’re taking a risk.” ~ Monique Winston
Take our culture assessment to see if your company culture is set up to support your future.
The main ingredients
Often considered the “personality” of the organization, culture reflects the organization’s symbols, heroes, rituals, and values. It is a compilation of stories employees tell about what they are most proud of and the secrets they whisper when asked, “what do I need to know that no one will say?” Understanding the way these four ingredients are displayed in a culture can be paramount for shaping and shifting it when needed.
Symbols are words, gestures, pictures or objects that carry meaning within a culture.
These might be displayed in:
- job titles
- employee recognition programs
- branding elements/logos
- parking preferences
- practices to welcome one another
- items or design features that hold meaning
For instance, one of our clients provides cubicles for ALL employees (including senior level leaders). If a staff member or senior leader has a confidential meeting, call or discussion, they are held in a private room that offers a window view. Another one of our clients has a four-story building and at each level the corporate office reflects a hierarchy with senior leaders on the top floor with window offices and other support teams on various floors below. While neither model is inherently right or wrong, these stories clearly speak to the culture one might expect from each. These subtle symbols reflect aspects of company culture.
Heroes are people who possess characteristics that are prized within an organization’s culture.
Many catholic healthcare systems have integrated heroes into their culture through their founding stories. Who the company heroes are, through the employees eyes, reveals what is important in a culture.
- Who is pictured on the walls of the buildings?
- Who do people talk about, either past or present, that are revered?
- Are there key leaders, board members or founders whose presence still influences the organization?
As an example, one organization we partner with has a previous CEO who is deeply valued and respected. Employees tell stories of how she knew each of them by name and always sought their input. This simple example speaks volumes to what their culture finds important. A new leader stepping into that role would have certain “unwritten” expectations from the team about what is necessary from a leader.
Rituals are the collective activities that are socially essential within a culture.
- Some organizations start meetings with a pause, opening reading, recognition or positive customer stories.
- While others will lock the doors when a meeting starts and if you are not on time, you miss the meeting.
- Others might embrace walking meetings or stretch breaks.
- Many organizations celebrate tenure of employees who have been with the company for a number of years.
- Other examples might be to ring a bell when sales targets are reached, hold a debrief session after significant events happen or host a monthly learning workshop to support growth.
These various rituals inform employees behavior, actions and priorities.
Finally, values reflect what’s important to the organization and the people within it.
When we consider values from the lens of culture, we look at what actually happens in an organization. Most companies have beautiful statements about their values, but culture tells us if the organization actually LIVES those values.
- Integrity might be listed as a corporate value, but if employees are encouraged to take credit for each other’s work, is it actually genuine?
- If you consider an organization that values collaboration, they will likely have more people involved in decision-making than an organization that values leader-led decisions.
- All of these “ingredients” are made visible by the practices and behaviors that individuals engage in daily as part of their organizational life.
While culture is shaped by strategy, because it is shared amongst a group of people, it is also indistinguishably linked to leadership and individual personality characteristics of those who make up the group within the system.
One thing we know about culture is that it is self-reinforcing, so the collective group will learn, ritualize, process and develop social patterns around culture shifts. This doesn’t always come easily or quickly, but because culture is structurally based, we can de-construct certain elements of culture and recreate them in new ways to change behavior and support desired changes.
As leaders, we are often asked to understand the internal and external environment of our organization and to “change the culture” to achieve better results. The inability to shift a culture to achieve strategic objectives has led to the demise of many CEOs over the course of time. While senior leaders are responsible for creating organizations that thrive, they often fail to effectively align elements of strategy and culture to enable them to achieve their desired outcomes. Without the right culture, strategies fall through the cracks and an organization is not able to respond to the needs of its customers or employees. Additionally, without delivery on effective strategies, an organization’s culture suffers and will eventually wither and die. Both are necessary for success; in the best of worlds, culture and strategy run parallel paths that eventually intersect, enabling the organization to flourish.
To become and remain successful, organizations must determine the most effective culture to support their needs and then determine how to manage and alter their culture effectively. And, while there is no one size fits all recipe to follow for producing the best company culture, there are ways to assess and shift culture in a very strategic way to position your company for the future. As our environments become more complex, understanding how your culture supports changing strategic needs is important. Equally important is knowing HOW to change your culture in a meaningful way to drive more desirable outcomes.
Learn more about the services how organizational culture can shape your company’s environment.