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How To Fix Your Lame Company Culture

Culture isn’t something you can dictate. Here’s how to shift the way your company thinks about culture to get everyone engaged.

How To Fix Your Lame Company Culture
[Image: Flickr user Steve Davidson]

Innovative companies like Apple and Google are held up as shining bastions of positive company culture, while other companies struggle to come to terms with the very idea. But the reason why so many fail is that they treat a positive culture as an extra piece to be added to the machinery of business, not understanding what lies at the core of this concept.

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So how can you go about changing your company’s culture? Here are four approaches that will lead to success:

1. Think collectively

Culture is not something that you can dictate from above. We pick and choose the things that we buy into, that we commit to and become passionate about, and that applies as much to corporate culture as to popular culture.

The most important step in changing an organization’s culture is therefore buy-in. If you want to create a culture where people are pushed to be their absolute best, then you need to get their permission, both through the way you communicate with existing employees and the way you recruit new ones.

Pushing people hard when they have not committed to this can lead to anger, resentment, and bitterness within the organization. Positive engagement and finding ways to make everyone that ambitious can lead to a dynamic, ever improving business.

You need to make your culture part of the recruiting process, something candidates are aware of and buy into. Look for employees who fit your culture, not just the skill set for a particular job, and help people distinguish between what is and isn’t appropriate behavior.

But if you want to achieve real change, then you need to go beyond this and involve employees in defining the culture. If they are involved in this process from the start, if the results are something that they feel they have shaped, then they will treat that culture as theirs.

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2. Think holistically

Many attempts to shape a culture fall short because they fail to address the whole person. But just as a culture is defined by every person within it, it is defined by every aspect of their presence within it.

The physical environment of your workspace both reflects and defines how you fit in with your work. A cluttered, messy environment does not support lean, streamlined work–that’s one of the reasons lean specialists make a big issue of clearing out clutter. But equally a minimalist office without personal effects will not support a cozy, informal culture. Look at how your environment relates to the culture that you want.

This holistic approach should extend to employees as well. Publicizing your company health plan tells employees that you want to be seen as caring about their well-being. Creating a multi-dimensional well-being program that looks to employees’ development, financial security, and social and physical health shows them that you mean it and improves morale and engagement.

If you want to change the way employees relate to your corporate culture then it’s not enough to stick a value statement on the wall. You need to consider the physical, social, and psychological impact of your workplace.

3. Think consistency

Being consistent is as important as any of this. No matter what you’re aiming for, if you behave inconsistently then you will get an inconsistent culture, and one where employees see you as insincere.

The California nonprofit game designer HopeLab is a great example of how to get this right. Many companies claim to want to be inquiring and creative, then stick their employees in an environment that is rigid, inflexible, and lacking in the playfulness that encourages real innovation. HopeLab built reflection and inquiry into everything they do. Meetings have to be built around questions. The office is filled with cards designed to lead employees to challenge their assumptions. All forms of learning are supported and encouraged, bringing a stream of new skills and approaches into the organization. Everything from agendas to development plans is consistent with a spirit of questioning and innovation, so that is the culture they have.

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Of course all of this should be reflected in the company’s stated values, which will then shape behavior. Prioritize in a way that meets your values. This gives employees permission to focus on work that is consistent with your culture, and it will lead to both behavior and outputs that match your values.

4. Think core

It is not enough to try to spread a positive culture across a troubled and inconsistent framework. It is only by building that culture into the everyday working lives of your employees, into the very fabric of your business, both physical and intellectual, that you can build something with a real impact.

Creating a positive culture is not an easy thing. But it is one that can energize and drive your business. It’s a fine model and one we should all learn from.

Mark Lukens is a Founding Partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20 plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources.

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