That mysterious thing called organizational culture – everyone loves discussing this topic. A company is doing well – credit goes to the culture. A company is not doing so well – blame goes to the culture. And it is perhaps true. Culture is critically important to business success, according to 84 percent of the more than 2,200 global participants in the last Booz & Company Survey (Infographic). But what is more surprising is that 96 percent said some form of culture change is needed within their organization with 51 percent believing that their organization is in need of a major culture overhaul. If organization culture is so widely accepted as a critical factor for a company’s success, and people believe the culture needs to change, why is this not happening? I think the problem lies in treating the whole culture thing as a mystery (that is here, there and everywhere, can be sensed but cannot be grasped – you get the drift) or as something that lies in the HR department’s purview (along with other mysterious things like employee engagement, succession planning, etc.).

Culture

Wiki defines Organizational culture as “the behavior of humans within an organization and the meaning that people attach to those behaviors. Culture includes the organization’s vision values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits.”

I would interpret this as the “how” in the company. How do we work on a daily basis – how do we interact with each other and with the external world, how do we react or respond to situations, how are our actions guided. I recommend you read “What Is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care? by Michael Watkins” – the post and the comments to see how many different interpretations there are of culture (no wonder it is a mystery).

For all my readers out there who want to delve into this mystery a little more and add to the already high discussion levels on this topic and perhaps bring about culture changes in their own organizations, this post is about building and sustaining company culture from my experiences in two stages of my career – as a team leader in mid-size and large companies and as a small business owner in the second year of my company.

Company Culture Builder #1 – Have a clear Vision, Mission and Values statement: This is where you define the culture of the company. It is critical that every employee knows and understands the vision of the organization and the values that it stands for. It needs to be simple enough or made simple enough that everyone in the company can understand them and get aligned to them. The idea here is to get people really involved and committed to the culture – logic and reason have their place, but in initiatives like this the emotions of people have to be tapped – and a clear mission, vision and values statement serves as a great way to bring everyone on the same page.

Company Culture Builder #2 – Hire people who embody these Values: No matter how talented a person is, if you don’t think that the person would be a cultural fit in the organization, resist the temptation and don’t make an offer. The people you hire are your ambassadors for culture, they will be the examples for the next set of hires. As they say, one bad apple spoils the basket – not only do you need to ensure that you hire, promote and reward people not just for skills or performance but for attitude and behaviour that aligns with the culture that you want to foster but also help people who are not aligned to be aligned or move them quickly out of the organization. When valued behaviours are not demonstrated, no matter where he/she is in the hierarchy, there should be consequences that show that such behaviour is no longer acceptable in the organization. This is important to establish accountability.

Company Culture Builder #3 – Understand Culture is not just Top-down: It is side-wise too. Yes, it does start at the top but it happens together – built through everyone’s behaviour and interactions in the team or company. Culture is everyone’s responsibility. Every person in the company should be walking the talk, walking it together, and knowing enough to course correct if some action in the day-to-day operations of the organization does not fit the culture.

Company Culture Builder #4 – Bring Culture in when solving Business Problems: I think this is the best way to bringing the theories to practice, to reducing the whole mystery about culture. When you have an irate customer or a profitability issue or a collaboration issue, that’s the time to do a root cause analysis that also assesses the problem based on what value was or was not used. Did we follow our culture? Were any of our values ignored? Based on what we stand for, what is the right thing to do now? Do we need to change anything in our culture so that this problem does not appear again? These discussions really help in reinforcing the message (and solving the business problem).

Company Culture Builder #5 – Focus less on Perks and more on building Trust and Respect: A cool office, a world-class gym, free food are all good but not at all the main factors that will make a company an employer of choice or build a culture that makes both customers and employees happy. These are short-term motivators only. Enough studies have been done to show that people want to work in an environment where they feel valued, respected and are making a significant contribution to a purpose larger than themselves (meaning). Therefore, creating a strong and healthy organizational culture is more than providing a few services that give a nice shiny surface gloss. Build trust and respect so that when one digs below the surface, one finds a strong and healthy foundation for a great culture.

Taking the digging analogy further, I want to end with these wise words from Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus with MIT Sloan School of Management, and author of many best sellers including the Corporate Culture Survival Guide :

“Culture operates at many levels and certainly how we do things around here is the surface level. I like to think of culture to be like the lily pond. On the surface you’ve got leaves and flowers and things that are very visible; a visitor would see them. That’s the ‘how we do things around here;’ but the explanation of why we do things in that way forces you to look at the root system, what’s feeding it and the history of the pond, who planted what. If you don’t dig down into the reasons for why we do things this way you’ve only looked at the culture at a very superficial level and you haven’t really understood it.”

How would you define company culture? What do you think are the key factors to build and sustain a great company culture? I would love to hear back and learn from you.

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