How Company Culture Could Make Or Break Your Business

If you plan on running a successful organization, you have to invest in your company's culture.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of a company successfully addressing culture issues started with a phone call. A woman with a thick Southern drawl explained that her company was in the process of acquiring a smaller organization to expand its portfolio, and their team had battle scars from prior mergers that had failed to live up to expectations. She knew that culture clash was to blame.

Her company was in the process of integrating its latest acquisition, and her leadership team wanted to get a clear understanding of how the cultures of the two organizations could merge effectively. Through dialogue and decisive action, the leadership teams on both sides of the deal were able to align the efforts of the newly integrated organization. These efforts resulted in an informed, engaged employee base that actively participated in creating a future worthy of their individual pasts.

I like to characterize culture with my clients as "the way we do things around here." It’s the things you’d learn about while working in a new job—things that might not be in the employee manual but are no less important for successfully navigating a company.

Culture is a relentless driver of employee behavior. Left to its own devices, it can potentially limit an organization. But if leaders work to define it, assess it, and understand it, culture can be used as a tangible business lever to directly achieve goals and improve performance.

Four key components need to be in place in order to translate culture into something people can relate to and, more importantly, invest in:

1. A Solid Model

People need a frame of reference for the concept of culture. Educate your employees and raise awareness of the issue. Individuals often only understand a word like culture in terms of what it means to them personally. Create a common definition so every single person understands what culture is—and what it’s not—for your business.

2. Tools for Understanding

You need tools to track how culture links to performance outcomes. Set goals, measure progress, and showcase culture’s relationship to things like sales growth, retention, and customer satisfaction.

You need both quantitative (surveys) and qualitative (dialogue-based) data—these will help establish measurable baselines. Qualitative data breathes life into quantitative data, telling the stories behind the numbers. Personal experiences reveal the underlying beliefs and assumptions that drive employees’ behaviors. These are all essential for developing a deep understanding of how culture is shaping performance.

3. Processes to Implement

Educate leaders on how they can get employees to think critically about the effects of culture on their business. How has the culture helped or hindered their performance? Provide your team with a clearly defined process for assessing and managing your organization’s culture over time to drive business metrics that are critical to success.

4. Turning Data Into Action

Finally, you must turn data and dialogue into real change. Don’t give up until you see real changes in the way your company operates and how your employees describe the current culture. Invest in leaders’ ability to drive the culture you need to succeed.

Chris Cancialosi, Ph.D., is the managing partner and founder at gothamCulture. The team at gothamCulture focuses on identifying the underlying causes of organizational obstacles and assisting leaders in developing and executing breakthrough strategies to elevate performance. The team provides critical, thought-provoking insights to leaders who desire to use organizational culture and leadership as key drivers of performance.

[Image: Flickr user Nic McPhee]

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5 Comments

  • Very insightful article! One of the single greatest assets any company has is their people. In a lot of ways, companies are formed for the sole purpose of solving issues: This could be internal issues or issues for your customers, but if you have the right team on board with thoughtful, creative, intelligent, and driven individuals you will embrace each challenge and come up with brilliant, out of the box solutions over and over again.That is what really makes a great company and creates a sustainable competitive advantage. At UrbanBound, we make sure that each one of our employees understand where the company is going and what it was built on.

    Thanks! Kinga http://www.urbanbound.com/

  • Thanks for a powerful article on culture. Making 'culture' a tangible thing can be a tricky things to do and the four components suggested in the blog help do that. If we don't spend the time trying to understand or describe 'culture' then it's much harder to take ownership for it.

    As a leadership development company, at Proteus Leadership, we argue that although leaders need to take full responsibility for the culture they want - it is every single employee's job to 'reflect the culture they want!".

    Ten years ago we launched a program called "Creating a Positive Workplace Culture" in Australia - and still today we see great attendee numbers and participation at the program. Perhaps this is to do with the event by-line - How to create a no-whinge, solution-focussed culture: http://proteusenterprises.com.au/index.php/events/creating-a-positive-culture

    Thanks again Chris - great article.

  • This is a great article that highlights the importance of culture in the workplace. Here at Onboardly, we use an employee feedback platform called 15Five (15Five.com). We have found it works very well for us, as it only takes us 15 minutes to complete each week and allows us to celebrate wins, share challenges, and identify problems before they escalate. This way, we are always communicating with our team leaders, allowing them to be aware of the pulse of their team. Every company should have a type of employee feedback system to ensure their employees are happy and have a safe platform where they can voice their opinions.

  • Hello Jillian and thanks for the post. I'm not familiar with 15Five. I'll have to go check it out. Have you found that relying on a technology platform to drive feedback between employees and leadership has helped to foster live, in-person discussions or does it potentially put additional barriers in place that prevent/reduce interpersonal dialogue?

  • We are very lucky that our office is a tight-knit group of five ladies! We share our thoughts and opinions on a daily basis. The technology platform allows us to say things that we might not want to say out loud or things that we want to keep confidential between team leader and each employee. Since we have great in-person dialogues, the technology platform of 15Five helps each relationship within the team grow in the best way possible.