As both an internal Organization Development practitioner and as an external consultant to HR, one of the most frequent conundrums with which I am presented is (wait for it)… culture. The C-word. As an employee, I often am in the midst of experiencing what a freakin’ elusive, and important, concept culture is to the effective functioning of a team, a department, a division, and a business. And as an interviewer of candidates interested in potentially joining the organization of which I am an employee, I have been asked, repeatedly, to describe the organization’s culture. Given all this exposure to the big C, and all the opportunity to think about it and consult upon it and drive changes to it, you would think I’d have the culture thing nailed down. Alas, I do not. But, in true FOT fashion, I do have thoughts – strong thoughts – about it. The big C, that is.
Thought #1: to go at building or changing an organization culture directly is pointless, fruitless, and ultimately, a waste of resources. It always confuses me when I encounter an organization that is undertaking a “culture change initiative”. What this turns out to be, most often, is some kind of team building / marketing campaign touting a new employer brand and logo, or a new corporate communications strategy / function / initiative, or a new something else that employees are supposed to be so enamored with that they will, over a very short period of time, believe in a new direction, think the “right” organizational thoughts, and behave in all the prescribed ways the “new culture” requires.
All that may happen – for a little while. A very little while, given how ingrained the “true” organizational culture actually may be. Eventually, without the right foundation in place, employees will revert to what they have believed, what they have thought, and how they have behaved. Conclusion: actively changing an organization’s culture requires hard work and sustained effort towards outcomes that resonate with all employees. This is more than a marketing campaign, a team building event or a newsletter.
Thought #2: culture is cumulative. It is the summarization, conglomeration, and amalgamation of demonstrated leadership behaviors, employee support systems, encouraged relationships, achieved results, and rewarded outcomes (the list is longer, but I have a word limit here) over time. To truly grow or change an organization’s culture requires that all of these elements be carefully thought through, planned, and aligned.
I put leadership behaviors first on purpose. How leaders behave – publicly, privately, one on one and in small and large groups – matters. It matters A LOT!! Leaders who actively participate in team events and who make every effort to actively engage with employees on employees’ turf and in their worlds – these are leaders who are purposefully evolving a culture in a certain direction. Leaders who stay removed, who communicate only occasionally, and then only through email, who don’t reach out personally to employees – these are leaders who evolve a culture in a different direction. Either direction is fine – as long as it aligns with the organization’s objectives and outcomes. It’s when leadership behaviors are inconsistent with the company’s purported cultural objectives and outcomes that confusion, and ultimately cynicism, is created. And cynicism truly is one of the most insidious (and negative) cultural characteristics, and a very difficult one to change to something more positive.
Thought #3: culture, like many other things, is strongest when grown from the grassroots. This looks a lot less like “company events”, marketing campaigns, and team building, and a lot more like encouraging individuals and small groups to undertake culturally aligned activities on their own initiative and reinforcing that. It can look like the following:
- Encouraging team members who happen to be in the same location for client work by paying for a group dinner (and the mileage / gas required to get to the gathering).
- Celebrating individuals’ own philanthropy and volunteer efforts (if giving back is a cultural characteristic that the company espouses).
- People reaching out to one another to offer help, assistance, comfort, and that being quietly acknowledged and encouraged come review time (again, if that is a cultural characteristic the company espouses).
- If the company culture is all about driving performance and innovation (a la Apple), employees creating their own career path and competing to create the coolest, next thing, and the company rewarding only results (not effort or congeniality).
Culture is a powerful, powerful strategic and operational lever at an organization’s disposal. It is both a lever and an outcome It also is, I think, one of the most misunderstood, and misused, levers and outcomes out there. Organizations that have a very thoroughly thought out culture strategy and execution path (a la Apple) reap huge benefits. Organizations that don’t have the cultures they – intentionally or not – have grown. My final thought: be intentional about culture. Be thoughtful, proactive, cumulative, and strategic. And above all, be very, very intentional.