Each workplace develops its own culture, regardless of whether leadership is shaping it. Being proactive and improving the culture has benefits such as a more engaged workforce, greater retention of employees, attraction of higher talent, higher resiliency, and a better delivery on your brand promise.
Research reported in MIT Sloan Management Review found that corporate culture is over 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover. Usage of health care services caused by job strain at high-pressure companies is nearly 50 percent greater than at other organizations. Poor culture can contribute to lower engagement, higher turnover, and lowered productivity. Other research shows multiple benefits of a healthy culture. But what do we mean by culture?
What defines workplace culture?
SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, defines culture in this way: “An organization’s culture defines the proper way to behave within the organization. This culture consists of shared beliefs and values established by leaders and then communicated and reinforced through various methods, ultimately shaping employee perceptions, behaviors and understanding.”
This definition can lead us to confuse culture with organizational goals or a mission statement written by upper management. These can influence or reflect culture, but they don’t always reflect the actual observable behaviors, values, expectations, and practices that inform the actions of employees at all levels. An egotistical manager, a team bully, a charismatic union leader, or an event like a pandemic can quickly alter the culture as it is experienced by workers.
Organizational culture is also influenced by the greater culture or society in which it resides. An organization’s geographical location or locations, the demographics of its employees and/or customers, and world economies can all inform some of the organization’s internal culture or cultures.
It’s easier, perhaps, to identify a toxic culture than a positive one. In toxic cultures, workers feel disrespected. There is a failure to recognize and reward top performance; a lack of commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion; and unethical behavior. Even frequent reorganizations, layoffs, and being on the bleeding edge of innovation can cause workers stress and contribute to a negative view of an organization’s culture.
On the positive side, culture could include such things as manageable workloads, promotion of work-life balance, candid and frequent communication from top leaders, celebration of teamwork, productive conflict, joint accountability, and generous interactions with customers or clients.
Organizations define culture in different ways. I’m reminded of a quote from Sir Richard Taylor, founder of Wētā Workshop, after three Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects for The Lord of the Rings movies: “I think our success can be best measured by two main cultural characteristics: by the number of babies born to the team here and the number of mortgages owned by our colleagues.” While these might not appear as key performance indicators recommended in any business literature, they do reflect this leader’s values.
What’s your culture?
Cultures form whether or not a company speaks about them or tries to manage them. Defining your culture can be especially difficult if the organization is larger than a single team. Yet a common question posed by interested talent is “Can you tell me about your organization’s culture?” So it’s important to get as clear a picture of your culture or cultures as possible.
What stories do people tell about working at or with your organization? What do employees say during exit or stay interviews? What are they saying on public forums? These can be mined for possible descriptions of your culture. Interviews and unsolicited feedback can get at the emotionality of your culture better than numbers can.
Can organizational culture be measured?
Culture is as challenging to measure as it is to define. But its results or outputs can be measured.
Organizations can find clues to their culture in a few different ways. Sentiment data that you gather from surveys and interviews can provide a general rating for the quality of the culture. Typical questions around well-being include: How meaningful is your work? Do your colleagues offer kindness and compassion to each other? Do you respect and trust your leadership? You can sometimes discover major shifts in sentiment within departments or locations. Interpreting those results can be challenging. A shift might reflect the departure of a disruptive worker, better management training, or recent bonuses.
Data you can act upon is difficult to find with just a sentiment survey. Anecdotal feedback can often supply more actionable feedback. Some companies have found interviews conducted by someone outside the organization to be more insightful than those done internally. Anecdotal feedback can uncover patterns or common themes to help define your culture and determine how well it matches the organization’s mission and stated values.
Behavioral or communication data is even more revealing, but harder to gather. There are consultants and tools available to help you gather and analyze such things as lateral moves and promotions, retention numbers, number of interns hired, rates of absenteeism, number of customer interactions, customer retention rate, the language employees use in electronic communication, or employee networks. Relationship data shows how employees interact with their colleagues and customers. Keep track of anecdotal feedback to uncover patterns or common themes.
What gets measured should reflect what the organization’s leadership values most. What gets measured is, indeed, part of the culture.
Can workplace culture be changed?
Culture alters as people are hired, promoted, leave, or make internal moves. New technologies and a changing economy can also cause it to change. To maintain a healthy culture, it often needs to be managed or cultivated.
Once you’ve defined the culture you want and the culture you have, you can create interventions or support efforts to shape or maintain the culture. You can create metrics that reflect the organization’s values.
Let’s look at a few examples. If the organization values diversity but doesn’t see it reflected in their workforce, they might change where and how they recruit talent, establish a mentoring program, add a statement like “I feel my unique background and identity are valued” to a pulse survey, and measure diversity in future hiring and promotion decisions. If several employees share stories about a lack of collaboration, the organization might offer a program like The Five Behaviors® Team Development, include creating psychological safety as a measurement in manager evaluations, and add teams to their recognition and reward program.
Those in leadership, including managers, have a strong role in shaping culture. Their leadership styles, behaviors, and values model the culture that will develop around them.
Culture is also built collaboratively. It is built by everyone in the organization, and not just human resources or through C-suite communications. It might begin with HR’s interviewing and onboarding processes, but it doesn’t end there. Managers give it shape through their priorities and interactions. Every individual in the workplace responds in one way or another to the current culture and adapts to it or can strive to alter it. Cultures can even differ between departments or locations because individual, societal, and professional mindsets, assumptions, and values will come into play alongside the organization’s overall culture.
Culture can even extend beyond the boundaries of an office building. It can include how an organization interacts with its customers and how it markets itself. Culture can also include what kind of corporate citizen it is. Do employees get time off to volunteer, do they contribute to their community, and do leaders work with local educational institutions?
“Employees devote a great deal of attention to their leaders’ ethical behavior and respond with intense positive emotions to the display of fairness and moral integrity.”
“We’ve found that managers get better results when they start with a few smaller successes, which then provide a basis for expanding. Start with one problem—or a few. Get some people to plan a couple of modest experiments to make progress on that issue, with guidance on the kinds of innovation you’d like to see. Build in some learning on the cultural issues that need to change. Try it out. Pay careful attention to what works and how. Incorporate the successful ideas into subsequent steps.”