Culture can make or break your organisation. The problem is too many organisations talk a lot about culture but fail to adequately address it in real and sustained ways. So, what is culture, how do we improve it and how do we sustain it?
“Culture is the values and practices shared by the members of the group”. There are two aspects to that definition: Values (e.g. honesty, integrity, care, selflessness, loyalty, etc.) and Practices (what people do and don’t do). Too often, people within organisations don’t live out the values because they:
- Are not clearly articulated;
- Have not been agreed across the organisation;
- Are not adequately emphasized;
- Were created by someone ‘up top’ (without buy in from others);
- Were written years ago by a different group of people (and have failed to be passed on).
To live out the values:
- There must be open, honest and courageous discussion involving everyone to set them up. Nothing short of that will generate the buy in to the necessary behaviours.
- The values must be revisited, with some frequency, to check the buy in (and maybe even adapt the values .. there’s nothing wrong with that).
- Organisations must only select in new team members who will fit the agreed values.
All of that takes up significant resources and that’s part of the problem … we don’t make the necessary effort (rather than doing the ‘real work’). Competitors have access to virtually the same resources as each other so what people do and don’t do is (the) one thing that can set an organisation’s performance above another’s, and it’s very hard for a competitor to chase it down, because it takes time. We have to spend the time and money, ongoing, to improve people’s behaviours and therefore the culture.
How can we know what our organisation’s or team’s culture is? Listen, observe and perceive. It’s actually not difficult to gauge culture in these ways and what’s affecting it but we have to be honest in the evaluation. It’s also possible to ‘measure’ culture via comprehensive internal, anonymous surveys (there are several that are available online to do this).
There are several other important points about culture:
- Culture is the outworking of what we do and what we don’t do so use the word “behaviour” before using the word “culture”. Behaviours are what forms the culture. All conversations about culture must immediately turn to the specific behaviours that need to change and who is not engaging the desired behaviours. Frequent references to culture do little to change it. Always ask ‘What is observable?’ Think about the power of that question for your own organisation, team and individuals? We can observe dishonesty, lack of open communication, lack of effort, individualism, lack of accountability, etc. so let’s be specific.
- Whatever behaviours are ignored or accepted become part of the culture. So it’s necessary to be observant, stringent and proactive wherever behaviours are not right for the organisation’s success.
- Get people to look in the mirror at their own behaviours before they look through the window at other people’s behaviours. Otherwise, factors such as differing personalities, seniority or experience can lead to lesser scrutiny of some people’s behaviours than of others, and that’s clearly not going to be effective.
- It takes significant time to build a solid culture but a short time period of poor behaviour to damage it. The introduction of a “wrong” person, the introduction of an unfair rule, tolerance of instances of poor behaviour, can all undo what has been positively built up in the past. So persistent and continuous emphasis and monitoring of behaviours is necessary … it’s an ongoing process.
- “Culture is built from the ground up but must be led from the top”. It’s often asked whether culture is top down or bottom up … it’s both. Everyone has responsibility for creating and living great culture, and getting people to understand that will help them to own that responsibility.
- An organisation is more likely to have a strong culture if it is clear internally on ‘Who we are, What we are, Where we are going, How we are getting there, And Why’. Lack of clarity on these questions will leave an organisation floundering culturally, as people are then unlikely to exhibit the desired behaviours.
- Bluntly, if you have the wrong culture you may have the wrong people. People create their own culture so unless there are institutional barriers to desired behaviours, the responsibility has to stop there. Success doesn’t come easily to any organisation and tough decisions need to be made sometimes if anyone is unlikely to measure up, once proper training and development has been exhausted.
- Sadly, sometimes people at the top of an organisation receives less scrutiny than they should because of where they ‘sit’ and that’s just illogical because it’s even more important for them to be demonstrating the behaviours required for great culture than anyone. Those at the top must receive honest and genuine feedback to help their behaviours align to the desired culture as well.
- Resources, whilst not everything, do help with culture. An under resourced group of people have to overcome that first. Sure, it can be team building to have to do so, but it’s less than ideal.
- People must be and feel empowered , meaning they are actually authorized to act with initiative, resourcefulness and to explore. This all helps to create a positive, challenging and rewarding culture.
- Culture can thrive on innovation, change and development . It’s invigorating. If an organisation is ‘same old, same old’ it may be making it very difficult to improve the culture.
- When an organisation has a strong culture it must then address the impact new people can have. Normal inductions in business don’t often address culture well at all. It should be high on the list of aspects for each new person, to give them every opportunity to not only adhere to an existing positive culture but to add to it somehow.
- Culture can blossom by doing things differently. Physical workouts at the workplace, walks around the work block together, rooms to think, training and development beyond the career space, can all add to a wonderful culture … don’t dismiss these types of approaches too quickly.
- “The truth matters”. Stick to the facts, deal with reality and tell the truth. No culture can ever be great without the truth.
- We need to respect and act positively on the multicultural differences between our team members. Different cultural backgrounds lead to differing behavioural norms and they have to be built into how we go about unifying teams to achieve the organisation’s goals.
- People need to have a sense of belonging , whatever that is and however it’s created, they need to feel they ‘belong’. They are then more likely to help others feel the same.
- Because culture is all about behaviour, there are three important points to make in the way we deal with poor behaviour:
- The commentary must point only to the behaviour and not the person. Statements like “You’re impatient” or “You’re unreliable” are branding the person and are likely to offend and therefore most unlikely to generate the behavioural change being sought.
- Keep all negative (emotional) phrasing out of (performance) discussions. This is difficult to do but absolutely necessary. Discussion about behaviour must be restricted to what people do and don’t do.
- Generalisations are ineffective. Statements like “You’re always late with the work” or “You don’t use enough initiative” are unlikely to produce the behavioural change desired. The wording must be specific to the instance at hand.
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