Significant numbers of leaders are saying their organizational cultures are deteriorating, and they’re struggling with maintaining morale and motivation. Culture has been hard to maintain over the last couple years. After all, it’s tough to nurture a shared set of beliefs and behaviors when people are distant, and the work is dispersed.
The talent revolution and the number of people leaving their jobs is perhaps the best evidence that organizational cultures are struggling. People are actively re-evaluating why they work, what they do, how they work, where they work, with whom they work and for whom they work—and when the answers to their questions don’t align with their preferred experience or their belief in the potential of their future experience with a company, they are apt to leave.
The Power of Culture
Organizational culture is a critical criterion for people’s decisions to join, stay, leave or engage with their roles. As a shared set of beliefs and an accepted set of behaviors, it is “the way things get done around here,” or “what people do when no one is looking.”
The ideal culture can be different for different people. She may prefer a more individualistic, high-speed culture with plenty of recognition for hard-driving achievement. He may want a collegial culture focused on serving internal and external customers where there is plenty of feedback and reinforcement. They may seek a culture which is technical, evidence-based and in which competence and careful decision making rules the day. A perfect match with the culture (what you value most is what the culture provides) is more important than particular attributes of the culture.
Of course, there are elements of any culture which make it more successful with better results for employees, customers and shareholders over time. These tend to be cultures where there is a clear sense of mission and direction, balanced with the opportunity for people to have a voice and participate in the future of the organization. In addition, it is a place where there are clear and consistent processes and healthy conflict management balanced with adaptability, learning and the ability to shift as necessary for customers and the market.
What’s The Problem?
But the problems of culture are also rife. People report they don’t feel connected, or they don’t feel aligned with their organizations—what’s important to them is something they’re not getting from their work experience.
So what’s going on? And how can organizations give their organizations a shot in the arm of culture so they can attract, retain, engage and inspire people. Consider these issues:
Many people have been hired during the pandemic and this has created a challenge for getting employees on board and engaged in the work of the organization. Sure, it’s pretty straightforward to be sure they have their laptop and understand their tasks, but the unwritten rules are significantly harder to convey. Even if people aren’t new, they have been away from the broader context of the company for so long, they may not have a clear sense of the norms which guide choices.
Your problem may not that people have it wrong in terms of your culture, it may literally be a void of culture. People may sort of know what’s most important, but they may not have a compelling sense of what makes your company unique or their contribution special.
People understand culture through their immediate experiences with leaders and co-workers. Many employees’ worlds have gotten smaller and companies report more silos within the work. People have stayed in touch with the handful of teammates they work with regularly, but have lost connection with other departments or colleagues they didn’t know was well to begin with. This creates fragmentation because the experience that one team is having may be different than another department or different again compared with those who report through another leader.
Cultures which are fragmented will have a hard time pulling together. Everyone’s oar may be in the water, but it’s tough to row in the same overall direction without the strong voice of a captain or cockswain shouting out the shared rhythm of the strokes.
Cultures may also be dormant. In the past, people participated in events which reminded them of their shared purpose. The town hall highlighted customer wins and the twice-yearly forum reminded people they were all in it together as they competed for business and brought new products to market. Leaders could offer coaching during a walk to the coffee machine during a meeting break, and people could learn from colleagues by overhearing them on calls or leaning over to them to ask in-the-moment questions.
Plenty of companies used online connection approaches successfully, but these approaches aren’t the same. They lack the shared buzz and emotional contagion of gathering, and the immediacy of working side-by-side and responding to the nuances of the day. Thank goodness for virtual experiences. They have been life-saving and effective for some aspects of communication and connection—but they likely won’t be enough to sustain culture over the long term. Of course, global companies or all-remote employers must rely successfully on linking people virtually, but a combination of virtual and face-to-face is more ideal than all-distance connections to the exclusion of in-person opportunities.
If a culture is dormant, the norms, assumptions and values which make it what it is are still present, but they may be in hibernation—ready to be re-awakened or re-set, but not something people can see or experience clearly without some effort.
How to Renew, Refresh and Reinvigorate Culture
Whether you have a void of culture, a fragmented or dormant culture. You can take action to move toward a healthy, strong and sustainable culture.
Assess and Take Action
Like everything, you have to know where you are in order to improve so assess your culture using an instrument or discovery efforts in order to understand what’s working well and less well, and to understand your biggest opportunities for change. Then, take constructive action to improve.
Make Culture Visible
The classic model of organizational culture positions it as an iceberg in which many of the elements of culture are invisible, but palpable. You can’t see them, but you can still experience norms, assumptions and values. Raise things above the surface of the water by talking about what you value regularly, and by reinforcing the behaviors you want to see by discussing feedback and celebrating success. Be explicit, clear and communicative about what matters, why you take the actions you do and what success looks like. More discussion about more aspects of what’s acceptable and preferred will reinforce culture for people.
Hold People Accountable
Culture is significantly determined by the worst behavior it will tolerate. For example, you may be a culture which values and respects people, but there’s that one jerk who is allowed to stick around because he secures tons of sales. Or you’re a culture which espouses excellence and performance, but there’s that one team member who is super-nice, but just can’t seem to get anything done. People pay attention to the exceptions to the culture, so it’s important to be consistent in expectations, manage performance when it’s not up to snuff and celebrate when it is.
Any leader or team who has hired badly will agree, hiring the wrong person is even harder than being without someone in the role. When you select new people, be careful to evaluate their fit, but also the extent to which they will provide a stretch for the culture and deliver new thinking. You’ll need a balance of both—people who are aligned with what you value and who can move you to the new places you want to go. Ensure diversity and new perspectives, hire those who can perform well with others and contribute to your future as an organization.
Culture is a make-or-break element in terms of what matters for an organization’s success. It unites people in shared beliefs and purpose. It reinforces behaviors. It motivates performance and encourages contribution. Culture is the glue which binds people to each other and to something greater than themselves—and makes them want to be part of the effort. Therefore, it’s worth the time it will take to understand what’s working—and what’s been lost—so you can regain it and reimagine a future which is better because culture is strong and constructive.