Great Cultures Are No Mysteries
4 Secrets of Great Companies
The drive to create culture has always been a mystery to me. Culture evolves. Once established, changing culture is nigh impossible.
Various elements come together to create the culture of any organization. It is only when one of those elements comes into crisis, is threatened or violated, that employees also begin to feel threatened. Understanding this solves the riddle of employee engagement. When you feel that you belong to a culture, you give discretionary effort. When you give discretionary effort you are actively engaged.
All the programs, rewards and recognition, bonuses and merit pay a company can offer can have a short term positive impact on engagement and effort. Yet, when person does not feel they are part of the culture, and part of the future of that company, they will not sustain any feeling of pride in the company.
I have worked with and witnessed organizations in the public and private sector where the ‘secret sauce’, as one CEO calls it, is present and provides the energy for employee belonging and sustained company success. Here are those elements:
A set of authentic values
A strong set of values. Values are strongly held beliefs, emotionally charged, resistant to change and universally applied. Values are expressed and witnessed in the actions people take. Values can not be created by the communications team and they can not be articulated in single words or greeting card statements of generalities. Values have to be authentic to the organization. Values, to be meaningful, have to be demonstrated by all employees in all situations and can not be situational or aspirational. The values are the truth of the organization and are the employee brand. They are the way each and every employee expects to be treated by each other, regardless of pressure or situation.
History was originally transmitted from generation to generation through oral means. Oral history captured the events that were most important to the person telling the story. Company web pages are filled with ‘the history of our company’. But few actually include the moments of truth that demonstrate when the company, during hard times, lived their values. The histories of these companies are factual not emotional. When employees live the values and the stories of living the values exemplify the moments of truth that make the values authentic then the values come alive. It is when this happens the values are shared to others with passion and meaning.
By retelling these stories to new employees the values are learned by the new arrivals. They give meaning and depth to the behaviours that define the values. It is necessary to identify the meaningful legends and to share them repeatedly with employees. Often the corporate legends are about the authentic values of the organization not the posted values. That is when the culture has a disconnect, a short circuit.
A Community of like-minded individuals
When those who espouse the need for diversity criticise the idea of a common corporate culture, they miss the point. There can be a vast diversity of people from different backgrounds, cultures and religions who still hold fast to the same values that drive the company. The over-used and misleading idea that ‘people are our most important asset’ actually supports this. People are the key ingredient of any organization’s success. When people have a common set of values and recognize that despite one’s other differences we all can trust one another to act a certain way in any given situation, a strong culture exists. Organizations need to have people and people need to trust one another. Trust comes when we know that people ‘have our back’ or put another way when people can be trusted to act accordingly in any given situation at any moment in time.
In my work I have witnessed the impact of hiring people to fit the company values. Yet, most firms do not have, as part of the selection process, a values alignment question because they don’t know the authentic behaviours that fit their company. However, when a person aligns to the values they will probably take the job, even at a lower pay then the other offers they have. When there is values alignment one study by Monster.com showed that turnover is less by 30%. That translates to significant money added to the bottom line.
Vision is a desired future state of something significant yet to be accomplished. When you feel that you are part of something bigger than yourself that is giving back in a way that is meaningful to you as a person you can not help but be engaged. Like values, visions don’t change with the change of the strategic plan. Changing the values and the vision only confuses those who are committed to them. The change in vision and or values is the source of active disengagement. To put this in perspective we join organizations as volunteers because we strongly believe in the purpose, the vision of the organization.
The same is true of companies. Companies need to have a vision that represents something significant yet to do. One of our clients, a pharmaceutical firm, has a vision of ‘making the world safer for children through vaccines’. Why would you not be proud of being part of that company? The vision statements that are not simple and to the point are usually the source of ambiguity. Vision statements must be short, yet powerful, to the employees. Vision statements are about a journey to a North Star a beacon of the desired future.
Culture is actually simple. All you need is to have an authentic set of values that do not waver from employee generation to generation, a vision that calls people to join the journey to the future, stories that exemplify the authenticity of the values and movement towards the future, and people that find meaning in all of these. Yet, like unhappy families, dysfunctional organizations are dysfunctional in their own ways, toparaphrase Tolstoy. The path to making a company functional is easier than many think.