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:
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.
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.
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.
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.