Large or Small, Companies Must Work Their Workplace Culture

People at staffing agency

What does it FEEL like to work where you work?  

Right or wrong, your answer probably describes the culture of your company.  Building a work environment in a thoughtful manner doesn’t happen by accident.  Hiring employees who will thrive in your culture can quickly lead to success for all.  Planning for, and hiring to that culture requires some effort, but will create a workplace that’s uniquely yours.  The personality of your company will become your secret ingredient for success.

Businesses with one employee can have as much of a culture as a corporation with 100,000 employees.  Each organization has one whether it’s planned or not.  Business owners and corporate leaders should make sure that their company’s culture is the one they actually want to have.  Defining your culture through planning is critical; what “vibe” do you want your business environment to have?  Then, you must decide how to reinforce that plan, in order to guide how people will behave and interact with one another during each workday.

Roughly defined, the culture of the workplace is the meaning that’s attached to the daily actions of leaders and employees.  The net effect of everyone’s behaviors blends together to create a working atmosphere.  Workplace cues can strongly shape behaviors: values statements, the company’s vision and mission, company buzzwords, symbols and performance benchmarks (e.g. what does “good” or “great” look like?).  These and other intangibles combine together make up the “norms” – what is acceptable and expected – in your workplace.

Planning Your Culture

While the ingredients of a work culture may be somewhat complex, creating one does not have to be.  Simple steps will grow the culture you want for your business:

Start with clarity and conviction.  Culture is defined at the top of any company or organization.  If you’re responsible for how either will operate, be clear with yourself about what “should be” best practices for a healthy workplace.

Think about behaviors:  Focus at a detailed level on the precise behaviors you feel are important for success for all employees; visible actions that may be seen or heard.

Decide about what in working life is important?  Make a list of lofty thoughts; values, priorities, mottos or guiding principles.  Labels vary widely, but they’re really guideposts for what you want to see lived out in your organization, day-to-day.  

Articulate these statements about your workplace that you believe to be true, or want to have happen.  Let’s call them “Culture Statements.”  They should be stated in a way that is both assertive and clear.  The customer comes first may be a little mundane and is definitely overused.  Make them your own – express the same priority in a way that reflects the conviction of your beliefs.

Craft your Culture Statements.  These will describe how you envision everyone in your company working — individually or together — in a productive and satisfying manner.  Again, think about behaviors.  What exactly is important to you and your company’s success?  Write these behaviors down and revise as needed over a few days or weeks.  Give yourself time to think about these before committing to and communicating them.  

For example if you want to avoid a culture of petty gossip or conversational triangulation (two or more people talking about another), you might develop a Culture Statement such as: “When in doubt, go to the source.”  Meaning, it’s OK and expected for an employee with a concerns about something he or she hears to go directly to the person who originated the information, to address those concerns.

Or, if you want to encourage collaboration and teamwork, another Culture Statement might be:  “It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help.”  Or, “Two heads are usually better than one.”

With the benefit of a clearly articulated list of Culture Statements, the resulting description is of a workplace that is poised to function with its own flavor and personality.  You are building your culture.

After creating your list of Culture Statements, publish them within your company or organization for all to know and understand.  Share them in whatever way makes sense, but use multiple methods or channels to reach teammates and managers.  Everyone will be expected to adjust how they’ll do their work accordingly.  Publicize your statements in a way that works best for your business.  And for all future employees, make sure these are explained as part of your company’s new hire orientation.  Saying them out loud and getting people to acknowledge your Culture Statements is key.

Managing Your Culture

Unfortunately, words alone do not make a culture.  They are merely a starting point.  The heavy lifting for leaders is to enforce (i.e. manage) day-to-day what has already been stated.  When it comes to building and sustaining a work culture, the verb “enforce” is entirely appropriate.  Behaviors that are incompatible with the Culture Statements cannot be tolerated.  Holding yourself and others accountable for maintaining what is acceptable and expected is the lifeblood of a strong workplace culture.  

Here are ways you can change your Culture Statements from words to reality:

Display:  Either digitally or with signs, placards or hard copies, insert these statements into daily work life where they will be regularly seen.

Reinforce:  Go over your Culture Statements with employees on a regular basis.  The frequency is completely up to you depending on the need.  Well-functioning companies with an established culture may need to review only once or twice a year.  Dysfunctional companies trying to change its culture may need a more frequent review… perhaps weekly or monthly.  No matter what, be sure to include your Culture Statements in all new employee onboarding/orientation programs.  The first day or week for a new employee is the right time to set clear expectations for the types of work behaviors valued by your organization.

Perform:  Tie important performance criteria to these statements in order to use them real-time.  Then, whenever you spot a behavior that’s valued by your culture, call it out.  For everyone’s benefit, link what just happened — good or bad – to your company’s Culture Statements.  

Encourage every employee to hold one another accountable for living your company’s culture.  If any employee feels that a workplace behavior is out of alignment with a known Culture Statement, then the reasons for that should be determined, and if necessary, remediated.

A leader’s task is to bring words on a page to life.  Doing so will make the elements of your company’s culture become known, and more importantly felt, by everyone working there.

Sustaining Your Culture

When it comes to staffing and recruiting for your company, your culture should heavily influence the hiring process so that your culture may continue to be be reinforced ongoing.  Stated another way, by hiring employees who are already predisposed to your culture (they don’t require as much shaping), your culture can keep feeding itself to make sure it thrives and lives on!

For example, if your culture states that collaboration is important for success at work (remember “two heads?”), then recruiters and hiring managers should ask questions about past experiences relevant to collaboration during interviews:

Tell me about a time when you had to work with two or more teammates to solve a tough problem, and you got results that were surprising to you.

Or, if your culture places a premium on direct communication, you could ask a question such as:

Describe a time when you felt a need to provide a peer with feedback about something that bothered you.  How did you handle that?

Hiring assessments can also help select for certain personality traits.  There are many useful hiring tools on the market that enable managers to steer the selection of new employees into areas of strength for a company.  

Summary

For companies of any size, proactively building and sustaining a healthy workplace culture takes real work.  Your business culture begins with statements about what’s important for the success of your organization.  The statements (norms) describe detailed behaviors needed for a productive and satisfying workplace.  These key inputs are important standards for effectively managing (enforcing) your company’s unique culture.

Growing and sustaining the type of workplace culture that leaders actually want will have a definite shaping effect on all employees.  A strong culture will create a healthier workplace by reducing dysfunction.  By guiding the daily decisions and behaviors of all those you depend upon for success, natural outcomes will include less dysfunction, increased productivity and greater employee satisfaction.

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