The Key Ingredient To A Strong Corporate Culture

Ben Olds Ben Olds, Culture, Employee Engagement, Employment Branding and Culture, Engagement and Satisfaction, Organizational Development, Performance, Personal Brand

Most companies talk a big game about how strong their corporate culture is and how it shapes the employee experience. But culture is a buzzword that means different things to different people. What is culture anyway?

One common definition describes culture as “the way people behave when no one is looking.” By that definition, “culture” influences how people behave. Therefore, the stronger the culture, the more influence it has on how people behave. Culture is, if you will, that “invisible hand” that aligns behaviors in a company.

If so, then having a “strong culture” isn’t necessarily a good thing, if that culture influences poor behaviors. What’s more, your culture reveals what your true values really are in the company—what gets rewarded and reinforced. So if there’s a disconnect between your culture (actual behavior) and your ascribed corporate values (desired behavior), then your “strong culture” is actually a “strong problem.” What you really want is a “strong culture that reinforces your ascribed values.” What does it take to achieve that?

It takes guts. To understand why, let’s consider the three most common mistakes companies make that lead to misalignment between desired culture and actual culture:

  • Companies hire for skills and hope to teach behaviors
  • Companies don’t measure fit with desired behaviors (values)
  • Companies don’t hold employees accountable for the measured fit with desired behaviors

Mistake 1: Hire for skills and hope to teach behaviors. People are busy, and they need help from employees who can get results. Often they hire for a set of skills they don’t readily have in-house, and they are desperate for help fast. Also, assessing skills is easy, while assessing whether someone’s behaviors fit with the ascribed values is much more difficult.  So we often have desperate hiring managers quickly dismissing “fit” concerns as unreliable, or accepting the “fit” concerns but believing our “strong culture” will change the candidate. Sometimes they’re right, but often that candidate winds up changing the culture.

Mistake 2: Don’t measure fit with desired behaviors. As Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.” Yet it’s amazing how many companies don’t measure how well people’s behaviors fit with the ascribed corporate values! Why is this? I believe companies should conduct annual 360s for all their management levels which include quantifiable ratings on how well employees honor the ascribed corporate values in their day-to-day behavior. Leadership can then compare the scores over-time and even across the company to identify any consistent behavioral stars or problems.

Mistake 3: Don’t hold employees accountable for the measured fit with desired behaviors. Some companies bother to measure fit, but still don’t have the guts to act on that data. It’s difficult – “Bad Fits” often get a lot done, in large part because they are willing to sacrifice the company values in order to get the task accomplished by any means necessary. This is the classic over-valuing of what gets done and under-valuing of how it gets done. But this is a big problem.

“Bad Fits” hire more “Bad Fits.” “Bad Fits” teach “Good Fits” to embody bad behaviors. “Bad Fits” run “Good Fits” out of the company. This is precisely the impact of culture—you now have a culture of bad behavior that is influencing others to embody bad behavior. Those who don’t want to embody that behavior wind up quitting in a further reinforcement of the newly formed culture of bad behavior.

You can avoid this trip, but it takes guts. You need the guts to say no to the technical expert who might be available to start tomorrow, but who doesn’t convince you that he/she behaves according to your ascribed values. You need the guts to measure how well people behave according to your ascribed values. And you need the guts to act on those measurements and hold people accountable for behaving according to your ascribed values. If they can’t/won’t, then you need the guts to exit them from the company despite how much they might be producing. This takes guts, because it often means less task-output in the short-term, which incurs costs now for payoffs down the road. Indeed, most worthwhile investments do.

Ben Olds
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!