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4 Ways To Keep Culture Intact When Times Get Tough

When things take a downturn, clamming up and pretending it’s fine is the worst move you can make.

4 Ways To Keep Culture Intact When Times Get Tough
[Photo: Flickr user Ian.Kobylanski]

There are times in the life cycle of every company when things get difficult. Maybe the market takes a downturn or a competitor launches a bold new product. Maybe a beloved exec quits to start a new venture. Whatever the cause, big upheavals always have an effect on company culture. Upper management is usually quick to address their impact on the bottom line, sometimes neglecting cultural issues.

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But when handled properly, it’s culture that can help companies push through the very events that threaten it. When neglected, though, the damage can be irreparable. Here are a few tips for maintaining culture when things go wrong.

1. Keep Customers Happy

Preserving your corporate culture might seem like an internal affair, but you should never forget that the reason your business exists in the first place is to serve its customers. That fact can become a powerful rallying point for those within your organization during difficult periods.

As your employees: How can we continue to serve our customers despite what’s happened? Renewing your team’s sense of its mission under fire can have a ripple effect on the company culture. High customer retention is a sign that your employees are working together despite setbacks, which can be enormously affirming. Customer attrition, on the other hand, might cause team members to question themselves and one another.

Paul Becker, CEO of Pinpoint Systems, tells me he sees his company’s focus on service quality as the central element of its culture. “We have enjoyed 10-year continuous business relationships with our clients because delivery of anything other than a successful solution to a client problem is simply outside of our corporate culture, and that element of our culture is shared by every member of our staff.”

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2. Provide Transparency

When it hits the fan, keeping quiet is one of the worst things leaders can do. It causes a rift between teams and their managers, and the effect on culture can be strangling. Don’t stay tight-lipped about what’s going on. Inform your employees of anything they may need to know in order to keep doing their jobs well and to prepare for any further shakeups to come.

Of course, if information is confidential for any reason, it ought to stay that way. If that’s the case, it’s worth pointing out explicitly that that’s the reason you can’t share certain details. Maintaining transparency tells the team that management understands their responsibility in the matter and that they trust their staff enough to handle uncomfortable information. That trust is an indispensable tool for keeping culture on track in any situation, particularly when things go wrong.

3. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Transparency is all about communication, but you need to go further in times of strife. Don’t just keep the C-suite door open, so to speak–increase both the amount and kind of internal messaging according to the scope of the difficulties you’re facing. Things naturally get tense when the company turns in an unexpected direction, which has a terrible effect on communication.

The more proactive you become about sharing information, the better you can encourage the mind-set in your staff that they can reach out to anyone with questions. Culture sours quickly when the assumption is that certain information is taboo, simply because it contains bad news.

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4. Talk One-On-One

If you have the resources, it might be worth having senior leaders hold one-on-one conversations with team members. Communication isn’t just a one-directional thing in times of crisis. You also need to listen. Let your employees speak freely and comfortably about the issues facing the company. That tells each person on an individual level that their input means something. It can even yield potential solutions to the problems at hand.

Most important, though, one-on-one conversations during tough times helps bring your employees together, showing them that the organization substantively values their opinion, rather than just paying lip service. These chats don’t need to be solemn meetings, either. Simply catching up for a few minutes can work wonders for company cultures that are going through tough times.

About the author

Barry S. Saltzman is CEO of Saltzman Enterprise Group and Partner at Culture Measures, a business focused on turning the art of culture into a science.

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