Leaders must understand how culture develops to best influence it. Here are some 5 research-backed tips for cultivating the culture you want in your organization.
Organizational culture is a phrase buzzing around the business world. Most leaders talk about the importance of culture, but it’s the rare few who effectively cultivate it. Much of the problem derives from misunderstandings about culture itself and how it develops within a group.
So, what is culture?
Think of culture as your organization’s “story.” Just because you, as a leader, have your version of that story doesn’t mean your telling will resonate with others. Although what you say can help set the tone, culture comes to life through behaviors. The values that drive action, as well as the habits and rituals people engage in, must reinforce the “culture narrative” that the leadership team is broadcasting, or it’s not really your culture at all.
This means culture is organic. It can mature, evolve, die, and even co-exist with other cultures. (That’s right, your company may not have a single, cohesive culture but rather an amalgam of subcultures!)
For many executives, culture can feel frustratingly elusive. If leaders cannot create culture, then how can they manage it? They must cultivate it with care.
Great culture attracts talent—but don’t mistake culture for recruitment
Why are so many leaders talking about culture? One big reason is talent. According to an expansive Glassdoor study:
56% of workers ranked a strong workplace culture as more important than salary.
More than three in four workers said they’d consider a company’s culture before applying for a job there.
The takeaway is clear: Leaders who don’t prioritize culture will miss out on the best talent.
Attracting talent makes for a compelling reason to care about culture, but the purpose of culture isn’t to convince outsiders that your company is a great place to work. That may be a recruitment strategy, but it isn’t a culture.
Culture isn’t so externally focused. To the contrary, culture is primarily internal. It aligns an organization’s members with a shared purpose.
The community aspect of culture means that workplace systems and processes must support it. From hiring and onboarding to day-to-day task assignments to performance evaluations and all the way to exit interviews for people who choose to leave the organization—culture must be embodied in all of these areas of the business, and more.
In other words, culture must imbue the entire employee experience and then emanate outward to touch customers, partner organizations, and communities.
Research-based tips for building a best-in-class culture
People crave clarity. They want to do good work and feel good about the people around them. When it comes to culture, leaders can provide clarity and examples of what “good” looks like for the particular organization.
How to do it? Here are some tips for operationalizing the culture you hope to cultivate.
Define key behaviors
People deserve to know what behaviors are important for success. Look at your organization’s values and then ask yourself, what kinds of behaviors support these values?
For example, if your organization values “curiosity,” then perhaps a key behavior is “asking questions.” How are you promoting that behavior? Speaking up can feel risky to many people, so if you want to garner curiosity, you need to make the organization a safe space where questions are expected and a questioning attitude is praised. You’ll also need to ensure questions are answered, or at least acknowledged, not pushed aside, so employees are motivated to ask in the first place.
Frustrated already? Did you start this exercise only to find out that you can’t summarize your organization’s core values? You’re not alone. This is a remarkably common issue. If you find yourself in this position, you simply have some up-front work to do. Begin by defining your values and then translate them into behaviors.
Review your hiring process
If you sent a survey today to everyone who has applied to work at your organization, would their responses indicate that the hiring process aligns with the values you express?
Let’s say your company values diversity, equity, and inclusion. Does your hiring process reflect this value? Are you attracting diverse applicants, eliminating unconscious bias from selection processes, and projecting a truly welcoming atmosphere?
Don’t just say “yes.” Check the results. Then do the hard part and act on what you discover.
Bake it in
Processes supporting culture should be incorporated into every aspect of your business. It’s up to you as a leader to assess how your values and cultural behaviors are (or aren’t) evident in things like:
(And that’s just the beginning of the list!)
You must also be actively engaged in filling gaps you find between values and the systems, processes, and outcomes you evaluate.
Make it visible
People learn through imagery and symbolism. How can you make your culture visible, in both the physical realm and the digital one? This tip will tap your creativity and allow you to have some fun.
For instance, can you create Zoom backgrounds that reflect your culture? Do you have the budget to gift employees some culture-communicative swag?
What about rethinking the office space design to promote the types of behaviors you feel are paramount? (Hint: you might think about collaborative environments or examine how the space supports employees’ health and wellness.)
Audit your brand
Finally, consider how the culture you build within spreads outward. Consider seeking data on customer satisfaction and engagement. On an even deeper level, probe how the people you serve perceive the organization and its culture.
You might be pleasantly surprised, or you might have some work to do. Either way, you’ll gain insight.
Finally, don’t force it
If we could offer one tip only, it would be this one. Don’t force it.
A culture imposed by fiat will inevitably erode. Cultures are shared, and they are dynamic. Culture can bring people together but it can also pull people apart.
Forcing a culture on members of an organization is more likely to result in the latter.
So rather than plan culture like a conquering general, grow culture like a master gardener. Observe how the culture is developing over time. Watch how different factors—and people—influence the culture. Try new ideas and see whether desirable cultural elements begin to flourish.
It may take a few seasons, but rest assured, the culture you want is within your reach.