As an executive recruiter who has worked at the most senior levels of organizations for 16 years, my approach on the front-end of any search is to take a deep dive into the corporate culture one-on-one with all of the stakeholders involved – hiring managers, leaders, peers, and direct reports. And while most everyone can quite succinctly describe the culture and its impact, very few are satisfied that the current culture is what it could and should be – a healthy environment in complete support of the organization’s strategy, mission, vision, values, and goals. (As you might imagine, I am very often brought in to replace an executive who was not a “cultural fit.” Quite a few clients today are looking for executives who can initially assimilate into the existing culture without “rocking the boat,” but who can, over time, help to transition the culture to something far more positive, productive, and in alignment with organizational objectives.)
While there is already so much written about leadership as it relates to cultural change and transformation, based on my experience, much of it is not getting through in practical, simple, and implementable ways that are being taken to heart and actualized. My goal here is to provide some simple, implementable reminders and suggestions that can provide a foundation for the positive change that is so needed by – and that could improve the results of – myriad organizations, irrespective of size or industry.
Organizational Culture 101
We all think we know what culture means. And we think we know how to create healthy cultures in support of organizational objectives. And yet so many leaders and employees are talking about how “unhealthy-toxic-negative” their company’s culture actually is – and the turnover and poor performance are often there to support these claims.
Part of the problem is that there are many executives out there who label culture as a soft, touchy-feely aspect of the organization that is a non-essential responsibility of “human resources.” But this is a misperception. The impact of your organization’s culture is directly related to your company’s most basic mission, objectives, and performance. Secondly, without complete buy-in, modeling and support from the very top, many leaders feel any effort to alter or transform the culture will be futile, so they don’t bother with even the most basic efforts to shape a healthier – hence, more productive — underlying environment.
A quick refresher: Culture naturally emerges in organizations and underlies — and largely decides –aspects such as climate and values. Corporate culture is comprised of the collective employee attitudes, ideologies, norms, experiences, perceptions, behavior patterns, language and rhetoric, beliefs, rituals, symbols, ceremonies, customs, traditions, methods of problem solving, use of technology, work environment design, rights, common understanding, meanings, and values that are passed on to new members and that influence and control how people evaluate situations, interact with each other, and share knowledge and information. Your culture also ultimately impacts how employees interact with customers and external stakeholders, and has a direct impact on your business performance.
Your culture has been years in the making based on successes, failures, rewards, decisions, and historical anecdotes and stories. It determines how employees on a whole will act, react, and execute on a daily basis. It also affects how leadership is — or isn’t — exhibited. Very simply, your organization’s culture is its personality with its own deeply-rooted, traits, responses, conditioning, inclinations, tendencies, and so on. It is complex, and exerts much influence – and even a level of unpredictability — over perceptions and connections throughout the company.
There really is no right or wrong culture – and not all aspects of a culture are particularly important if they don’t have a significant impact on the workings of the company. What matters is that the culture supports the business’s goals and objectives. Leaders must take the time to determine which elements are, in fact, important, and place their attention and emphasis there.
Are you Fully Utilizing-Leveraging All of the Cultural Change Strategies at Your Disposal to Improve Organizational Performance?
Leaders must be aware and mindful of your organization’s culture which is largely determined by employee behavior – otherwise, it may control and manage you. A leader’s success or failure can depend to a large extent upon his/her first developing an understanding of the organizational culture, and then being able to lead/manage it. And, as a leader, you play a pivotal role in creating and maintaining those aspects of the organization – including all-important culture — that encourage, influence, support, and reward positive, productive collective effort. Whether everyone believes it or not, culture can and does have a profound effect on company performance.
You need a plan — and an ongoing, concerted effort — to create or maintain a powerful corporate leadership culture where employee vitality, drive, passion, potential, and knowledge can thrive in support of corporate objectives. The creation of this type of corporate culture should be near the top of any organization’s priority list.
Shifting Employee Demographics and Attitudes Increasingly Require Creating “Engaging” Organizational Cultures
Strategic leaders – powerful leaders who operate from a baseline of high morality and ethics in pursuit of operational objectives — are transformational. And with employee demographics and attitudes shifting at a breakneck pace, there is an increasing need for such leaders, as many organizations are finding themselves needing to redefine the informal “social contracts” they have with employees. How to create and maintain a work environment that engages the passion, meaning, and commitment of your employees is becoming a common organizational challenge. Long gone are the days of a simple exchange of good-natured hard work for a stable job and paycheck.
Today, to engage your employees in meaningful, sustainable ways – evoking feelings in them of purposefulness, passion, and a strong desire to authentically and uniquely contribute – you have to figure out how to overtly provide them with ample challenge, accountability, personal development, learning, and career growth opportunities. This new breed of employee isn’t going away, and they have a hunger – a requirement, actually – for high-impact, powerful leadership at the top (and everywhere in between, for that matter) that is in touch, and that they can see, hear, feel, trust, and respect every day.
Today’s thriving organizations are creating self-sustaining organizational cultures that align their objectives with authentic employee engagement, well-being, contentment, and self-actualization. Today’s most effective leaders are carving out time to create the means and opportunities to profoundly engage employees and to infuse them with new perspective about how their innate talents and potential can be more fully utilized and leveraged within the organization. This is about first hiring “right,” then tapping into the purpose and potential of your employees – and creating an environment that supports this ongoing commitment. The organizations that can figure out how to do this effectively — and continually – are better positioned to win.
As individuals begin to see and understand that you not only care about their development and well-being, but beyond that, are seeking for them challenging opportunities that bring them alive in ways they have never before experienced, they will engage with the organization in more profound, promotable, and longer-term ways. This is just the beginning of a cultural leader’s job, however, because once you place individuals in the right roles that leverage their innate inclinations, passions, and skills, you then as a leader must create and maintain an environment – a culture – that allows them to thrive. This is how the best companies achieve innovative, efficient, productive, and profitable operations – they capture and propagate ideologies and values that they clearly and continually communicate, that are internalized by employees, and that are then translated into ongoing, productive methods of thinking, creating, behaving, and working.
Leader Behavior At All Levels = Employee Behavior
Organizational cultures can only be created, maintained, and/or transformed by people and their behaviors. Culture most strongly emerges through behavior — and changes through behavior. Executive-level leaders are the primary source for the creation, articulation, and revitalization of a company’s ideology, core values, norms, and standards. Leaders should be constantly thinking of ways to communicate messages about desirable behaviors and to positively affect ways of perceiving, thinking, and behaving.
It’s basic stuff: Leaders own the responsibility for creating an environment and culture for success. Organizations operate against a business backdrop of customer needs and demands, community and stakeholder opinions, and competition. Only when a company can achieve and maintain strong, profitable results within the existing business backdrop, can it be considered “high-performing.”
And the only way to achieve and maintain this high-performing state is through people – their actions, creativity, performance, productivity, behaviors, relationships, interactions, beliefs, attitudes, rhetoric, level of motivation, and so on. This is a lot to take into account and manage. But organizations can only be high-performing through employees who care about the business, and who are willing to work and do what it takes to achieve success. As management guru, Philip Wexler, has famously stated, “An organization can never be what its people are not.”
Theoretically we know the following, but clearly not all leaders allow it to provide a guiding light and internal guidance system where their own behavior is concerned: A leader’s every day, situational “style” — how they go about leading and treating people — has dramatic and significant impact on their employees’ behavior and performance. A leader’s “style” fundamentally seeps into and forms the defining values and priorities of companies that prescribe employee behaviors regarding quality and teamwork, and also significantly affects employee attitudes and approaches toward customer/guest and product/service.
The bottom line is that the values, actions, behaviors, and approaches of your leaders will determine, prescribe, and provide seed to the overall norms, procedures, and expectations that guide the behavior and decisions of employees in particular situations and that control the behavior they exhibit with one another. The greatest influence that leaders have on employee behavior comes through the values inherent in the leaders’ behaviors, actions/reactions, choices, main concerns, and rewards, and promotions/demotions.
Shifting a Culture Begins and Ends with Your Leaders
Culture arises and takes shape as a consequence – intentionally or unintentionally – of our social interactions and behaviors. And sometimes the culture that exists works against organizational objectives — and requires change. The need for cultural transformation can take many forms, i.e. transitioning from cut throat to cooperative, from negative/pessimistic to positive/optimistic, from bottom-line-oriented to customer service oriented, and so on.
The process of shifting a culture is a massive undertaking – and it begins and ends with your leaders. Most prominently, a leader’s distinct, observable actions and behavior patterns form the basic foundation for their employee’s behavior which then begins to set the culture.
Who you intrinsically are as a leader – your integrity, character, morals, values, priorities, inclinations, positivity, passion, drive, purposefulness, and humanity in dealing with people – will be reflected in those you influence. So, if your organization’s culture is negative, dysfunctional, or not in support of the company’s overarching objectives, you have to take a hard look at the behavior and tone of your leaders. Who they are and how they are approaching the company and its people every day affects and shapes the culture. Though some leaders may be technically skilled in the right ways, they don’t necessarily bring the cultural approaches and traits that need to be reflected back through the organization.
Shifting a culture is about far more than performance reviews and goal-setting. It requires an intrinsic ability on the part of your leaders to recognize, engage ,and inspire the best of people every day in alignment with your organizational goals and objectives. This takes self-awareness, commitment and effort.
It is a leader’s behavior – most prominently as expressed through priorities, rewards and values – that will most quickly, efficiently, and dramatically affect employee behavior. Where values and consequences are consistently seen and felt, your direct reports will be most influenced to act in accordance with prescribed, desired behaviors that will, in turn, positively impact the behaviors of their direct reports and employees in profound ways that will ultimately improve customer satisfaction and business performance. You may find it helpful as you contemplate whether your organization’s culture – and even your business unit, division, or department culture – is truly in alignment with your overarching organizational strategy, goals, and objectives to consider the following questions:
- What general, overarching beliefs, ideas, and goals are worth pursuing?
- What are the appropriate approaches and standards of behavior that employees should utilize to achieve these goals?
- How – and with what frequency — have these beliefs, ideas, goals, approaches, and standards been communicated to employees? How do you measure the effectiveness of these communications?
- How engaged are your employees toward the achievement of goals and objectives?
- Do employees remain positive and engaged throughout their day?
- How motivated are your employees?
- Who is inspiring and motivating your employees – and with what frequency?
- Who’s checking in with employees (more than annually in a performance review) to see how they are feeling about their contributions and interests?
- Who’s calibrating your employee’s efforts and interests against the organization’s business results in a way that is not punitive, but rather is empowering and engaging?
- Are your employee’s roles aligned with each of their innate gifts, interests, and passions? How do you know?
- Are employees providing a positive influence on each other? How do you know?
- How aligned and productive are your teams?
Can an Established Corporate Culture Ever Really Be Changed?
Attempting to alter values or climate without addressing the underlying culture will always be a futile effort. However, while corporate cultures are deep-seated and can be change-resistant, it certainly is possible for leaders to influence organizational culture. Though a challenging and slow undertaking, it can be done.
Many experts in organizational change believe that corporations are inherently resistant to positive cultural change and the larger the organization, the more difficult and tediously slow any sort of positive change can be. Why is this? Several factors: Old leadership with their old ways remains in position and their new words and messages through emails, memos, and mission and vision statements ring very hollow. From the get-go, employees perceive the effort as a lot of hot air thinly veiled in order to improve the bottom line. Employees themselves are also to blame because they don’t see what’s in it for them – why go to the trouble or effort of changing or adopting new behaviors or approaches when they see nothing wrong with the old, tried-and-true comfortable ways? At a very deep level, employees can be intuitively skeptical about corporate change.
It’s important to recognize that certain industries have certain traits that impact individual organizations. These can be the most difficult traits to alter or change. Certain engineering and manufacturing disciplines, for example, have processes and standards that infiltrate virtually all companies that operate within those spaces. It is highly unlikely that an organization will alter some of these historical, embedded traits.
However, if you can distinguish between these more “hardwired,” unchangeable traits and the other, more easily influenced aspects of organizational personality, i.e. behaviors and rhetoric, your cultural change efforts will be far more successful.
If your ultimate objective in seeking cultural change is to upgrade and positively alter employee behavior—what they do, how they do it, when or how frequently they do it, and what extra degree of valuable behavior or added effort they put forth—then your odds of achieving some level of positive transformation and change are much better.
The first step, however, needs to be accurately analyzing and evaluating your existing culture against your organizational objectives. The degree to which you are successful in achieving your strategic vision and goals is to a large extent dependent upon how consistent and successful you are in creating and maintaining an aligned, supportive culture.
For widespread cultural change to take hold, change must start at the top in terms of defining and consistently modeling corporate values, behaviors, actions, and leadership culture so that the new approaches and behaviors utilized by employees are encouraged, supported, and allowed to take hold in systemic ways. Without commitment and behavioral modeling at the top, individuals will abandon any new behaviors that they attempted to embrace, however briefly. In this day of the shifting social contract, if senior leadership isn’t seen as “walking their talk,” some of your best employees can be expected to leave the company in search of more committed leadership whom they can align with, trust, follow, and respect.
20 Ways to Create Positive, Passionate & Productive Corporate Cultures
If you are already doing all of these things, Bravo! So many companies and their leaders, however, could benefit greatly from implementing many, if not all, of these simple practices.
- Practice open communication. Poor communication, including poor listening skills, is one of the most common and significant corporate leadership weaknesses. Without question, inadequate communication around critical success factors and a general lack of trust are two of the most common and significant leadership short-comings. Are you doing everything possible to provide understanding and context through clear and constant two-way communication and reinforcement of corporate goals and objectives, strategic direction, critical success factors, mission, vision, and values? Corporate wide business metrics should be continually circulated and discussed to provide an ongoing clear sense of what needs to be done. Are you really listening to employees and taking appropriate action? Misunderstood and misinterpreted corporate values and goals lead to poor performance and poor morale. The frequency and quality of employee-leader interactions should be reinforcing and encouraging. What a leader says, and how she says it, establishes the subsequent context for direct reports to, in turn, say things that either encourage or discourage the productivity, effort, quality, and customer interactions of their employees/teams. It requires ample self-awareness on the leader’s part to know how they are impacting and affecting employee behavior. Once that knowledge is gained, it should be channeled for maximum positive influence. While parameters must be established for formal communication and interaction, never forget that all of a leader’s employee interactions and dialogues either reinforce or punish employee behaviors. You may even want to reinforce any common language or useful categories of speech, actions, and gestures that emerge in groups or throughout the organization in order to help employees and teams deal with conflict in cohesive and productive ways.
- Develop and communicate values and norms that set the foundation of the organization’s culture. Values, while not physically observable, underlie and determine behavior. Underlying assumptions and beliefs that are taken for granted (and that may over time even drop out of awareness and be difficult to articulate) initially emanate from values and they form the deepest level of culture. Values and priorities are observed and felt through employee rewards and punishments, systems, and approaches and need to be consistent. Is there complete alignment between your organization’s written and actual operating values? Your organizational values, its stated preferences for specific behaviors and outcomes, should not only address profit generation, but also should speak directly to the growth, development, and well-being of employees. Norms are the behaviors, approaches, and means of achieving goals that have been deemed to be culturally acceptable by others. A change in leadership certainly can bring about positive change in a company’s culture – new leadership, reprioritization, redefined and clearer expectations, and often new strategies, all for the better. But, it’s important for new leadership to understand that to the extent that old procedures, priorities, systems, and processes remain in place, they will continue to represent the past and have the “old influence” on employee behavior. Remember that when it comes to values, missions, and vision statements, how people/leaders act carries far more weight, and more directly affects your culture, than any written statements. What is leadership permitting, sanctioning, rewarding, applauding, praising, approving, and allowing to continue? What is leadership punishing, ignoring, terminating, and ending? All of these things should be in alignment with company stated values.
- Foster an openness to – even a welcoming of – change. Along with change can come challenge – and this is discomforting for many employees. If the acceptance and readiness for change is a problem in your organization, perhaps you can try helping people to understand that every single day in your organization requires that people be ready to change – make it clear that they are required to be better today than they were yesterday. Stretching and raising the bar is something that should happen every single day. Leaders can ask each and every employee, how were you better today than you were yesterday? Leaders have to constantly ensure that the proper levels of continual communication, coaching, learning, and development are present ensuring that people are comfortable with and ready for the change at hand, as well as the change on the horizon. They must understand all the ways that the change will be good not only for the organization, but also for them professionally (and even personally in terms of engaging/leveraging their strengths and passions and fostering their development). Help people to perceive change differently – change is needed in business for growth and overall betterment, not just for problem-solving. Leaders must be constantly evangelizing that change is a positive, that thriving organizations are constantly changing in the quest to be innovative market leaders. Products and processes must be ever-changing as the organization moves forward and grows. Communicate openly and frequently about change and solicit a consensus on how best to affect change within your team.
- Create personal responsibility for results. One of a leader’s most basic duties is, obviously, to make sure that individual ability and skills meet specific organizational/role needs. And to the extent that your employees’ abilities/skills really tap into their passions and profound feelings of purposefulness, you will find them engaged in their jobs and compelled to meet objectives and exceed performance goals. To truly engage individual’s in their work requires that they feel empowered (not micro-managed or oppressed — it should be a given that general approaches, processes, systems are in place, including for communication and progress updates). Your employees will only be able to fully engage and identify with personal goals, as well as the overarching business goals, when they have a voice and some level of influence over process. They must fully understand and embrace the effects and impact that their contribution has on the whole – and have some degree of say over how they will get there. This is when they begin to feel responsibility for achieving results. (Leaders make a big mistake when they assume that employees already know and understand this.) Leaders should be routinely having conversations such as, without you we wouldn’t be able to achieve x-results – or, we need you to do x so that we can achieve y. Reinforce that the organization’s performance depends on each employee’s maximum daily contribution.
- Encourage idea-sharing, debate, and dialogue. Sure, one leader or individual may ultimately have the best idea, answer, or resolution. But if you are trying to foster ongoing teamwork and camaraderie toward objectives, everyone should have a voice and be asked to contribute their ideas toward the achievement of goals and the plan to get there. The leader’s ideas should be saved until everyone else’s ideas have been solicited, shared, and taken into thoughtful consideration. The best environment is one in which an individual with a great idea freely comes forward and shares – and is subsequently made to feel that his/her contribution is valued and appreciated. Debate and exchange of opinions is encouraged – and is always done in productive and healthy ways. When employees work in such an inclusive, fear-free environment, they can more fully bring to bear the best of themselves – their most unique talents, ideas, and contributions – and are more likely to align in terms of shared values, efforts, teamwork, and execution. Effective leadership solicits feedback, is open to criticism, and always remains accountable for its actions.
- Embrace and foster creativity, innovation and learning. An organization’s ability to learn and grow in today’s marketplace is perhaps its greatest strategic advantage. How does your team best learn? How are your ideas most effectively implemented – through your roll-up-the-sleeves example and role-modeling? Charisma? Confidence? What really sticks and seems to have the most positive, motivating influence over your team? Continually assess your approach to eliminate the ineffective and build upon the proven, effective methodologies.
- Display risk-tolerance and allowance for mistakes. If you are fostering the kind of environment that desires the fullest employee contribution and engagement in order to achieve the highest-performing results, then you are setting high-bars and asking employees to take on significant goals and challenges. If employees bite off more than they can chew occasionally in terms of process or goal, there must be some allowance and tolerance for mistakes or coming up short from time to time. This is particularly warranted when the circumstance provides learning opportunities or some other process or system improvement. While this is not to say that poor decisions, inattention, or carelessness should be disregarded – they should not. But it is to say that focused, smart, and committed employees should feel supported in their quest to be the best.
- Examine the assumptions you are teaching your employees. Your own overt behavior has great value for communicating assumptions and values to others. Remember, in every corporate culture there exists a significant level of appropriate — and inappropriate — behavior that is purely “understood” – and, therefore, unwritten. Think about the norms in your company that are unwritten. Are these unwritten aspects completely in alignment with your formal policies and procedures? It’s worth taking a look at. If people are treated consistently in terms of certain basic assumptions, they come eventually to behave according to those assumptions in order to make their world more stable and predictable. So make sure these assumptions are in alignment with stated values and organizational goals.
- Intentional role-modeling, coaching, mentoring, and teaching. Everything you do is role modeling for employees, like it or not. Do you truly and consistently “walk your talk?” You will not be perceived as a strong leader without walking your talk every day in every way. Consider the personal example you’re setting. Are you consistent and ethical? Walk your talk and then reinforce the desired values with coaching, mentoring, and teaching. Cultural transformation starts at the individual level and then snowballs into a larger group. As a leader, who can you recruit to be your first follower as you establish new approaches and behaviors? And where can you set an example as a follower for another leader in the organization? Leaders pulling together in this effort sets a powerful example.
- What are you emphasizing, paying attention to, and measuring as a leader? That which leaders pay attention to communicates major beliefs. What kinds of questions do you ask? What do you consistently comment and remark on? How do prioritize and set meeting agendas? Are you consistent? Where do you have the strongest emotional reactions? How and where do you allocate scarce resources, and how do you explain the rationale? When it comes to company culture, it is without doubt a direct reflection of the morals, ethics, behaviors, actions, decisions, and values of leadership. Words – whether through emails, memos, or mission and value statements cannot and will not alone positively shift your culture. They must be directly linked to actions — and consistency — to affect culture. One of the worst mistakes leaders can make is to create confusion among employees by being unaware and inconsistent.
- How are you reacting emotionally, particularly to crises and critical circumstances? Crises are especially important in culture creation. Crises heighten anxiety, which motivates new learning. Your reaction in times of stress and crisis speaks volumes about the company’s underlying core values, norms, and culture. Much credibility can be lost during these critical times when there is a disconnect between word and deed, and rhetoric becomes obvious. Do you consistently demonstrate for employees the appropriate actions to take under certain circumstances? You’re being observed and watched by your employees all the time. They are learning from you, and the accumulation of this shared learning over time impacts your culture. Your employees crave – and need – stability where reasoning, perception, and thought are concerned. Due to the high emotional involvement, how a crisis is handled can either strengthen the existing culture, or bring about change in the culture. A leader should never forget that inherent in crisis is the opportunity to impact and influence culture in positive or negative ways. Your reaction in crisis can create new norms, values, systems, and processes. You should also proactively provide emotional reassurances that help employees cope productively with job-induced emotion and stress. This can positively impact cohesion or camaraderie.
- Accurately assess and analyze the company’s existing culture, evaluating it against the cultural attributes required to achieve strategic objectives. Positive and desired cultural change is possible when leaders possess a crystal-clear understanding of strategic goals enabling them to identify the values, actions, and approaches necessary to achieve objectives. Then you must analyze the company’s existing ideologies, values and norms. Leaders should assess whether existing beliefs, behaviors, and descriptions of cause and effect relationships are healthy, productive, and applicable to the achievement of strategic objectives. Are employees experiencing uncertainty and ambiguity about the external/competitive landscape as well as about internal strategy/approach issues that could be rectified through stronger, more present leadership? Identify in writing implicit and explicit standards and values. Closely observe behavior including language and rhetoric. How many people really know – and act in alignment with — the company’s stated mission? What is the climate of group and team interaction? What are socialization patterns? What are the primary means for communication? What are the metaphors and symbols of success – and of failure? Assess your culture periodically through anonymous employee surveys – allow everyone to provide input. Include categories that will be needed as the organization moves forward and that are in alignment with approaches needed to achieve strategic objectives, such as the culture’s impact on self-actualization, trust, competition, power, honesty. You can undertake this informally yourself, or hire an outside firm to do this for you. However, you choose to do it, your goal should be to gain a greater sense for the optimal internal operating environment needed and what you could do better or differently to get where you need to go.
- Examine the criteria for rewards, praise, and status. Reward and recognition approaches and practices affect other systems in your culture in significant ways. What rewards and consequences do you attach to the behaviors and outcomes of your employees/direct reports and their efforts? These are the values that are then circulated and proliferated throughout not only your company’s management hierarchy, but also through all ranks of employees. What you reward, ignore, and punish carries strong messages and significantly influences culture. Do you ignore or deride new ideas and those who propose them? If so, you may be perceived as threatened, and people will assume that you do not welcome new ideas, questions, or suggestions, and that coming forward with any of these things will put one in the doghouse. If this describes you, ask yourself what steps could be taken to modify the rewards, thereby changing this aspect of the culture? Employees learn through their own experience with promotions, performance appraisals, and discussions with the boss. Anything deemed worthy of learning should have a reward system attached to it to ensure it. ALL reward, recognition and incentive systems must be aligned with the type of culture you desire and organizational goals. Organizations that make a “big deal” out of non-compensation awards, rewards, and recognitions tend to have more positive cultures. Tie too much to money, and you will surely see the softer skills you desire usurped by cash rewards every time. Rewards should also be evaluated for the actual affect they have on employee engagement, decisions, teamwork, quality, integrity, and so on. Understand that formal reward, recognition, and incentive systems—while absolutely essential — can present obstacles to effective leadership. Formal, monetary rewards cannot be viewed as substitutes for the verbal, interactive encouragement and coaching of positive behaviors from a leader. Also, make sure that the rationale behind the distribution of power and status is clear. How are power and status distributed — earned or assigned? How are influence, power, and authority allocated? How does tenure affect power? How and why do certain roles or functions carry more power than others? Everyone needs to understand who grants the power, the limits of said power, and how it is assigned.
- Impose real-time consequences that matter. There must be an understood system of support for goal-aligned actions and results, and sanctions for missing targets and disobeying rules. What actually happens has much greater impact than what is written or said. Too few leaders really understand the profound, performance-enhancing magic of positive reinforcement, recognition, and rewards. These things are seen as soft, nice-to-have, not-mission-critical approaches that can be doled out sparingly. But these are the very things that affect, shape, and drive employee behavior – what employees do, when they do it, whether they continue to do it, etc. Do you really understand the myriad ways that employee behavior is being influenced by your (written and unwritten) culture, priorities, expectations, consequences, systems, processes, physical environment, and employee/managerial rhetoric and attitudes? Leaders without this understanding and approach to the reinforcement of positive behaviors can be liabilities in and of themselves to the company.
- Examine criteria for recruitment, promotion, and termination. The individuals you hire, retain, and promote send powerful messages about your values. These decisions begin to establish a desired cultural foundation through these individuals who possess the values you need and desire. Who you don’t promote also speaks volumes. A succession/career progression planning program should be created and implemented that clearly articulates corporate expectations and charts a course for employee development.
- Understand and set group boundaries for inclusion or exclusion. What actually determines who is in and who is out? The leader should be determining this, but the broader team or group always tests it. Is it an inclusionary culture? Is it easy to go from outsider to insider? What are the criteria to do so? Tenure? Level? Department? How important is consensus? How important is lack of consensus? What instigates turf issues? What values are turf issues based upon?
- Create an environment of trust and respect. Are you doing everything possible to engender trust from your employees? Are you working one-on-one to build relationships? Do all of your words and deeds reflect ideals such as accountability, integrity, truth, and honesty? To bring forth optimal employee passion, engagement, meaning, and purposefulness, they must trust you.
- Utilize stories, rites, ceremonies, rituals, myths, legends, symbols, vocabulary, and gestures. Stories about important events and people can have significant effect on your culture. Stories define and set the organization’s identity. They reinforce assumptions, but don’t actually establish culture. The events and stories that leaders emphasize influence organizational identity. Stories and the use of symbols, humor, and traditions are powerful learning tools. They enhance collective learning, team-building, and camaraderie and are helpful in conveying new ways of behaving and acting that can be more practically internalized by individuals.
- Review organizational design, structure, systems, and procedures. Systems provide a form of stability and consistency that employees utilize and provide a platform for your culture. As cultures change, processes and routines sometimes need to change. Are there any archaic routines in your organization that really are no longer necessary? Repetitive, redundant bureaucracy should be identified and eliminated. Bring to the forefront healthy ways to adapt or adjust the organization’s basic structure that can alter norms, enhance communication, and affect culture.
- Consider the design and layout of the physical work environment. Whether your building includes an open layout, top floor executive offices, and other visible physical features that symbolize level, power and perquisites affects your culture. Make sure that whatever you choose to implement is in alignment with stated values
Cultural change is arduous and requires specific understanding, patience, and commitment. Ultimately, an organization seeking cultural change is seeking performance and profit improvement. Leaders trying to achieve strategic outcomes must understand culture and how to transform it. By virtue of your role, you have the best perspective to assess the current cultural dynamics and decipher what is working and what needs to change. It is an important – and essential – aspect of your leadership role.
Every organization will develop a culture, and every organization has within its capacity the ability to create a culture whose leaders embrace and utilize these essential approaches and elements. Every leader who lives and breathes these approaches everyday will have better odds of impacting the culture in all the right ways, making the achievement of goals – and success — likelier, faster, and easier.