The culture of any organization is created by several ingredients that combined drive the way the team and the organization work. It consists of values, artifacts and rituals, stories, and ends with assumptions and consequences.
Company values are the very basic building blocks of any organization. I’m not talking about the values you may print and put on your wall. I’m talking about the actual values the organization lives day in and day out.
In an ideal world, they are the same thing, but more often than not, there is a difference. As I wrote in You Can’t Lead Without Values And Principles, there are the core values that you live today and the aspirational values that you believe you need to adopt and live to be successful. These are often on the walls only. The reason is simple. Aspirational values need to be worked on diligently to become ingrained in the organization, to become the core values.
How do you drill down the values into the minds and hearts of the team? By creating artifacts and rituals that support these values, by sharing stories that illustrate them and by explaining the consequences of not following them.
Artifacts and rituals
Artifacts and rituals are the tools and daily routines that permeates everything you do. They can even support the goal of the company, work for the benefit of the organization and the culture you are trying to build. Or they can work against it.
Let’s say one of your aspirational values is to promote inclusion and treat people fairly. Yet, your daily ritual is to go for lunch with a select few team members. Every single day you eat with the same people. What message do you send to the rest of the team? Does this ritual help to promote the value of inclusion? Probably not.
If your rituals and artifacts don’t support your aspirational values, you will never build the culture you want to have. It is the small daily deeds that make or break the culture of the company.
People talk. Many stories are being told at the organization. Some of them are official ones, like those motivational speeches you may say at the all-hands meetings and in everyday conversations with your teams.
Other stories are informal ones. They are being told around the watercooler by the team members when you are not around. Both types of stories can help or hurt the culture you are trying to create.
I would argue that informal stories are more important. If a new employee joins the organization, they may expect the management team to talk positively about the culture and try to persuade the employees that this is the best place in the world. It is management’s job. And everyone knows that it is their job.
What is being said unofficially by the team members is much more powerful and credible for the new person on the team. These stories are being shared by the people who do the same job and live the same life in the same place in the hierarchy. Of course, this is a much more trustworthy source.
As a manager and a leader, you can’t impact directly what stories are being shared when you are not around. However, you have a substantial indirect influence. If the words you say, actions you take, processes you set up are all aligned and reflect the values of the company, the chances are good that also the stories being told unofficially will reflect that.
Your job is to lead by example and to be the sense-maker. You need to keep explaining to the team “why.” Why some decision was made and how does it align with organizational mission and values. Why you took a particular action and what the impact on employees or customers was. Why you believe something needs to be done.
In the absence of an official story, people will make up stories of their own. Proactive and frequent communication from you and the management team is critical.
Assumptions and consequences
Stories being told often reflect the assumptions employees make about company direction and decisions. What is more important is that they describe the consequences of actions taken by them or other team members.
If the management team communicates proactively, there are very few assumptions the employees need to make. Things are being explained clearly and promptly. If there is an official message, there is no need to make assumptions.
Consequences are more tricky. There are the official consequences when action by the employee is being followed by an appropriate reaction of the manager. For example, if the employee steals something from the company, they are being immediately brought to account by the manager and human resources group and most likely fired.
Then there are the unofficial unintended consequences when action by the employee is not being followed by any response from management. The employee steals from the company, and it is being ignored. What is the message to the rest of the team? Stealing is ok. Every new employee who joins the company will hear that story through the grapevine. Now imagine that one of the aspirational values of the company is “honesty.” The management can talk about honesty until the end of the world, but since the story about the consequences of stealing goes right against it, no one will ever believe that management actually means honesty seriously.
The artifacts, daily rituals, stories being told, assumptions people make, and consequences of their actions are what translates the values into real life. It is the execution. Without careful consideration of all these aspects, the values are just proclamations that you can paint on the wall or put on your website, but that has nothing to do with how the organization operates.
Principles to follow
Without having the right guiding principles, the actual execution doesn’t matter or in fact, can create a toxic culture that is not conducive to high performance and where people hate to work.
So what are the principles a modern manager should consider to build a high-performing culture where individuals are satisfied with their jobs and their lives?
When building a modern employee-centric culture, transparency is the key. It allows you to balance employee freedom with the necessary control mechanisms in place.
Jacob Morgan, the author of The Employee Experience Advantage, makes a statement that should be written in stone, “Transparency is the best way to balance employee freedom with organizational control.” The more you can disclose to your employees about what’s going on, how decisions are made and why, what are the realities of company life, the bigger chance is that they will commit and take your vision for their own.
Employees will understand when it is okay to do whatever they want, and when it is your decision, and they need to comply. Transparency works. Assuming it is accompanied by trust. If there is a lack of trust between you and the employees, then it doesn’t work, and in fact, it can cause lots of harm. You can be as transparent as you want if the employees believe you are a lying manipulator, they will never trust anything you say and will second-guess anything you disclose looking for hidden motives.
Recognize people, but make sure you do it the right way. What is the right way? Only the person you want to recognize can tell you that. Ask them.
Recognize and reward your employees for their contribution. Nothing is more frustrating than waking up one day to discover that you have been abused by your company and not being paid fairly for the work you have done. A loyal employee can become a disgruntled one overnight.
I’m not saying you should overpay people, but you should make sure that the compensation and benefits are aligned with the market and that within the team, there is some sort of justice when the best and most productive people are also paid best. Nothing frustrates great performers than a realization that the colleague that never does anything is paid twice as much money.
Show employees how their work aligns with the reason for being of the company. The more you can show, not tell, how their work affects customers, internal or external, the better.
A sense of purpose can be cultivated by showing employees how their work impacts a particular customer or colleague. Don’t talk in abstract terms. Show specific examples with faces and names.
The culture of purpose can be established by sharing stories about how a specific employee helped a particular customer or colleague. The less abstract you are, the better. You need to engage emotions, and that is easiest done by talking about a specific human being. Sharing these stories across the company regularly feels everyone with purpose and pride in what you are doing as a team. It also leads others to share the stories they see and acknowledge the accomplishments of others around them.
You can reinforce the sense of purpose by encouraging everyone to keep helping each other. If people wake up in the morning and go to the office with the intention to help others, they are more likely to feel needed and useful. When they get the heartfelt thanks from a colleague they just helped, they will fee recognized. The culture of mutual help can be extremely powerful for motivating and retaining your employees.
Fair treatment is not only about you paying people equally for equal contributions. It is much broader, and it starts with fighting biases. The way you fight bias and prejudice is to show that there is one. Educating others about what biases come to play in the workplace and how to avoid them is an essential aspect of creating a fair and inclusive environment.
You need to create psychological safety and an environment where it is ok to make mistakes and talk about them. Only in such a place are employees willing to voice their concerns and point out situations where you may not treat others fairly and with respect.
People with diverse opinions and backgrounds feel included. Inclusion and feeling of being valued are best cultivated by removing bias and by listening. By actively listening and then acting on the feedback and suggestions encourages everyone to share and then feel good when their contribution is acknowledged.
It doesn’t need to be anything significant. In fact, regular small tweaks to the way the team works based on the feedback from the members are much more powerful and long-lasting than once in a while major overhaul that will leave half of the team exasperated, confused or unhappy.
Talk not only about employees but also about the team. We all need to feel that we belong. Focus on fostering a team spirit of one organization, and create communities within the company that will care for the needs of like-minded individuals. When people create an emotional attachment to the other team members, they are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and will stick around longer.
Managers need to act as resources for their people using mentoring and coaching. Hire and develop managers who are other-focused. The primary goal of any manager is to make others around them successful. By setting up processes, coaching and mentoring people, and creating an environment where others can thrive, the manager makes the most significant contribution to the success of the company and their own.
Everyone should feel they can learn something new, advance, and get the resources to be successful. Give your employees the ability to learn and grow. Many people see a direct correlation between professional growth and a successful career. If they can become better, learn new things, become masters of their field, their satisfaction with the work, the company, and their life will skyrocket.
The work arrangement should provide enough flexibility so people can live their lives. Flexibility can have many different shapes. Starting with the place of work or work hours through the way the actual work is being performed.
Of course, not everything can be flexible, and there indeed are jobs where flexibility is somewhat tricky to achieve. But even in the most rigid, process-oriented jobs, like in a factory standing next to a conveyor belt on an assembly line, there always is something that you can do to provide the employees a bit of flexibility.
Everyone should have enough autonomy to feel like they can bring their best to the table. This follows closely behind flexibility. Autonomy, described as getting the job done the way the employee wants, is a potent motivator. Nothing is more demotivating than the manager leaning over the employee’s shoulder, directing every single move.
The goals are set by the company management team, but the actual execution can and should be in the hands of the people who will perform it. It starts with how the work will be done, when using what tools, and how it will be split across the team.
Management understands and acts in a way to allow for a healthy lifestyle of its employees. This means not only providing benefits that help to care about employees’ health. More importantly, is that it acknowledges that employees are not slaves or robots and overwork and high undue and constant pressure may burn them out.
Great craftsmen take care of their tools, and the great managers take care of their people. Every machine eventually breaks without maintenance, and people are just really complicated biological machines. If they don’t take care of themselves, don’t respect the natural laws, their physical and psychological health will deteriorate, and performance will drop. Good managers know that and act accordingly.
The environment should be friendly enough, so everyone is proud to bring in friends and family to show them around. You don’t need the fanciest office in the world, but it should be nice enough, so it is not embarrassing. It should be clean, functional, with a good vibe and enough personal artifacts that it feels cozy. When someone comes in, they should immediately picture themselves being comfortable working there.
A similar thing applies to the tools and infrastructure used to get the job done. It doesn’t need to be the latest cutting-edge technology, but it needs to be practical and efficient in getting the job done. The tools should support the employees in getting the job done. Inadequate tools and poor infrastructure is getting in their way and slowing everyone down.
And this leads us to the last piece of the puzzle. A strong brand helps with being proud of the company you work for. Help your people to refer future employees by making them proud of working at your company.
When people are proud of the brand, about the environment, and about the work they are doing, they are more likely to refer their friends. If all you do is to pay some referral bonus, you are missing the point. You don’t want people to refer others to work here only because you are bribing them with money. You want them to refer others because they really want to.
Measure how you are doing. How? The way to measure the quality of culture and employee satisfaction is to ask a simple question derived from the NPS concept used to measure customer loyalty. Net Promoter Score question for employees would be, “On the scale 1 to 10, how likely would you recommend our company to a friend as a good place to work?”
Obviously, it doesn’t end here. Don’t just ask, but observe and measure. What’s the point of employees saying they would definitely recommend the company to friends if they don’t do it? Most people need an additional nudge to move to action.
The most apparent nudge is money, so-called referral bonus. However, I’m not a big fan of this concept for two reasons.
First, it just doesn’t really work to attract good quality candidates is it encourages quantity over quality. Second, people would refer their acquittances for the wrong reasons, not that they genuinely believe in the company, but they can cash out.
Ultimately, you may have some hires from the referral program, but chances are they are not particularly motivated to work here in the first place, they get quickly poisoned by the current employees, and the current employees while referring others to make money are looking for jobs themselves.
Whatever your referral program is, make sure it is based on employees being proud of the company and do it with their heart. That way, you get the best referrals, and they will buy-in into whatever your vision is because they will be already presold by the employees who referred them.
Putting it all together
Culture is not something you can dictate from the top. It is being built from bottom up with each individual employee. What you as a manager and a leader can do is to lead by example and put in place the right processes, artifacts, and rituals to guide the employees in the right direction. By sharing the right stories, removing assumptions, and following through on the consequences of teams’ actions is critical to align what you are saying with what you are doing.
What are your thoughts? How do you build an employee centric culture where everyone is engaged, and feels useful and taken care of?
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