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4 Keys to Get Your Company Culture Back on Track

4 Keys to Improving Company Culture

“Is it too late to improve our company culture?” the Senior Executive leaned into the conference table as he asked.

“Well no,” I responded a little slowly. The question caught me off guard. It wasn’t the topic of our meeting invitation, but it was clearly the issue we were brought in for.

One thing was clear: The way this company was working… wasn’t working.

In less than fifteen minutes of conversation he admitted he was no longer excited about coming to work in the morning, didn’t feel much appreciated while he was there, was finding it difficult to get most of his important work accomplished, and didn’t believe that what he’s doing was making much of a difference anyway. It was early afternoon and he was already running on empty – with hours of work still to go only to relocate home where he’d still be tethered to his phone, texts and email.

If you’ve ever felt the same way, you’re certainly not alone. According to Gallup, only 32% of US employees (and only 13% of employees worldwide) feel engaged in their work. And yet 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success. In other words, the culture is a key signal of how well a company is doing. And let’s face it; being part of a successful company is highly motivating and exciting. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

The good news is that it’s never too late to get your company’s culture back on track. You can begin by asking:

What do you want your culture to be?

Straightforward but sometimes more challenging than expected, this question is especially difficult for organizations trying to right themselves. To get started, we recommend a version of the Elon Musk Method.

Musk has popularized the application of First Principles Thinking to business. Borrowed from Aristotle’s Physics, First Principles thinking begins by identifying what we are sure about – our basic beliefs. We identify these fundamental truths and then we reason forward, adding our creativity, innovation, ideas, etc. to build upon those truths in our own unique way. The opposite (and by far the most common) is Analogous Thinking – accepting constraints and copying what others have done with slight variations. “We’re doing this because it’s the way that others are doing it” – or “because it’s the way that its always been done.”

You can see Elon explain it here:

Since both the organization and its culture are comprised of people, applying First Principles to culture begins with an examination (and then agreement on) the their underlying values. To do this you’ll need to gather your key employees – not simply the folks performing key roles, but the people who exhibit the culture you desire – and explore their shared foundational beliefs. Don’t get too bogged down in the method – in fact, depending upon the organization’s needs, we utilize a variety of exercises here – it’s the results that are critical.

Once you’ve defined the values that you stand for, you can then begin to address closing the gap. First…

…Hire for Culture Before Skillset.

All too often we encounter organizations that hire poorly – typically some variation of the following process:

Someone screens candidates for the required skills, experience, and any additional information deemed relevant or necessary for the position. Next an interviewer reads this info moments before meeting with the candidate where they review entries and discuss how the required skills are likely to apply. Then the personal habits and characteristics of the candidate are generally guessed at and the person with the least amount of conflicts is offered the job. They join the company, meet or exceed expectations performing quality work for a while but eventually leave citing difficulties with their manager or cultural differences.

Three characteristics prevent the hiring process from becoming strategic. Those responsible for hiring:

1. Hire in Their Own Image. They believe in their own abilities and their knowledge of what the company needs most. As a result, they hire those who share similar experiences, beliefs and visions.

2. Mimic Success. They identify an individual who has done well in a particular department and attempt to duplicate them in a new hire. “Sam is our best coder and he’s an introvert who likes caffeine and sci-fi movies. So does this guy!”

3. Put Out The Fire. The search is on to hire the skillset that is currently in need, emphasizing immediate necessity over talent development and group capability. “Look at this resume! He’s not a cultural fit, but we can deal with that to get him on board.”

All three methods yield expedient hires but seldom produce effective solutions. The first two severely limit cognitive diversity (various and differing thoughts, approaches and solutions) by hiring similar people, while the third emphasizes a specific outcome and disregards culture altogether.

Start with getting your culture right – and don’t dilute it or stray from it with any new hires. The best thing you can offer your employees is hiring only “A” players to work alongside them. As the saying goes, first get the right people on the bus.

“Our version of the great workplace is not comprised of sushi lunches, great gyms, big offices, or frequent parties. Our version of the great workplace is a dream team in pursuit of ambitious common goals, for which we spend heavily.”

– Netflix “Freedom & Responsibility” Slideshare

Perhaps no great example exists than Netflix – long famous for its “freedom & responsibility” slide deck, which the company first published in 2009 as a way to communicate its corporate values to potential and existing employees. In fact, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told GQ in 2013 that it “may well be the most important document ever to come out of the Valley.”

The info in the slide deck – how Netflix hires, fires and rewards employees – was originally an internal document. “Publishing the deck mostly helps us tell the world who we are,” says Netflix’s current Chief of Talent Tawni Cranz. “It’s exciting and important to share culture. More and more people choose to work at a company not for the work but increasingly for the company culture and leadership.”


…Get Rid of Policies That Conflict with the Culture

During a recent visit with a company COO, I asked, “What’s the one thing you want your employees to understand about working here?” Without pause the COO responded, “That we’re all in this together.”

Nice thought – kinda all for one, and one for all-ish – angling towards loyalty and valuing relationship. Later, while touring the facility, I asked, “Do salaried employees have specific work hours?”

“Oh yes,” she answered. “Employees can stay as late as they want, but they must be at their desks and working from 8:00am to 5:00pm with an hour for lunch.”

“And if they’re late or deviate? Say they’re under the weather or going to a funeral.”

“Then we deduct from their sick time or vacation time,” again no real pause in the answer. “It’s the standard stuff,” she explained, “if you’re sick, bring a doctors note; if you’re going to a funeral, bring in the obit[uary].”

Ewe… I hope policies like those aren’t standard… but even if they are, they don’t exactly communicate the idea that “we’re all in this together,” do they? Sounds a little one sided to me. And bring in a doctors note or an obituary? How parochial is that? Feels like something my Mom might think of or my elementary school teacher would have wanted.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for a policy-free workplace. As bad as these policies are, they likely exist because of some form of abuse. I don’t know the specifics here (yet) but I’m all but certain that the policies are a direct result of poor hiring practices – onboarding people who do not match or support the “we’re in it together” belief.

Do your rules undermine the culture you’re pursuing? Do you’re employees act counter to your culture? If so, get rid of them both. And finally…

…Reward Behavior That Supports the Culture

Perhaps the biggest misconceptions we encounter when it comes to employee recognition is confusing it with rewards or incentives. So let’s immediately dismiss any objection relating to cost. You don’t have to spend any money to recognize employees. The only thing that is required is the acknowledgement of a job well done.

In many ways, this is Leadership 101. Getting big things done – innovating, disrupting, and setting a new pace – is hard work. And people are going to get exhausted, frustrated, and even disenchanted along the way. Taking advantage of opportunities to celebrate team values and victories amplifies those who support the company culture.

The message here is that everyone benefits when great things occur and acknowledging others serves as a reminder of the enormous potential of what can be accomplished together. Viewed in this context, its no surprise that recognition is one of the most important things you can do to increase retention and lower turnover.

In fact, research from Deloitte found that:

“Organizations with recognition programs which are highly effective at enabling employee engagement had 31% lower voluntary turnover than organizations with ineffective recognition programs.”

A 2012 SHRM survey found that:

“Companies with strategic recognition reported a mean employee turnover rate that is 23.4% lower than retention at companies without any recognition program.”

We spend a fair amount of time coaching individuals and advising organizations on enabling hope (that the future will be better than the present and that people have the power to make it so – check out The Hope Narrative for more on this).

The idea that “you can get there from here” empowers others to feel and act resourceful, realistic, and resilient; fueling the willpower and the waypower to reach stretch goals. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders and their organizations must show genuine appreciation for behavior that supports the culture you want.

Interested in Getting Your Company Culture Back on Track?

Now that you have a better understanding on how to get culture back on track, let’s get started on your company culture.

To help, I’ve created a free worksheet you can print (or type right into). You can download it via the button below.

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