Culture is a fascinating subject for me. It may stem from my short stint toying with a degree in psychology (opted for the minor instead) or just my interest in understanding how things work or why people do the things they do. I spend way more time than I probably should reading articles, blog posts, books, etc. on the topic, but at the end of the day, I think it’s important for leaders, or leaders in training, to really try and grasp the concept of culture and how it drives or holds back an organization.
A recent post on LinkedIn, “Rewards and Risks of Leading an Effective Culture” by Fred Kofman got me thinking about a specific aspect of culture, can a culture be intentional? I have heard arguments on both ends of the spectrum. Some believe culture just ‘is’ and there isn’t much one can do to impact it and others believe, with the right level of focus and cultivation, you can create the culture you desire. I think, like many polar stances the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Ignoring cultural impact on the success of your organization is a bit defeatist. It implies a certain level of fate in your outcome or that it really has no impact on whether you fail or succeed. On the other hand, assuming you can 100% control its development is probably a tad optimistic. Especially for large diverse organizations.
Marriam-Webster defines culture in a few different ways:
“the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place or time”
“a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.”
“a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)”
The way I see organizational culture is really made up of the first and third descriptions above. I think most people agree that every organization has a culture, but when you think about these two definitions together it becomes clearer that there may be elements that can be levered to be more intentional in its cultivation. I will explain a little further.
Taking the third definition we get the macro view of an organizational culture, but when you couple this with the first definition you can see that each individual you hire brings their personal beliefs, customs, etc. to the job. You can’t ask them to check that at the door during the work day (well you can but it’s unrealistic). So if you take the stance that your culture can’t be impacted then it will likely be some conglomeration of the individuals you hire. If you take the view that culture can be intentionally formed then certain levers can be derived from these definitions to take some control:
- Clear Mission, Vision and Values – this one is probably the keystone to the others on this list. Having an organizational mission, vision and values that are well defined and have consistent buy in from leadership are critical. They are the highest level of definition of who you are, how you live and where you want to be as an organization. Not only do these need to make sense to every employee, effort needs to be invested in helping individuals understand what it means behaviorally and outcome wise at their level and in their role.
- Hiring for Fit – this one is probably the key ingredient in what forms your culture. Getting people into your organization that are excited, bought in, and aligned with your mission, vision, and values is similar to making sure you are adding flour instead of sand to your cake recipe. So if you aren’t focusing your hiring (and firing) criteria around this, then you will be fighting an uphill battle in cultivating the desired culture.
- Incenting Behaviors – probably the most overlooked lever in the equation. Not because we don’t incent, but because we don’t look at how we incent. What and how you are measuring, paying, rewarding and recognizing will drive the right or wrong behaviors faster than any other lever. At the end of the day, even those with the best intentions will ‘follow the money.’ So if you are expecting one outcome and incenting another then don’t be surprised if you end up in different places.
- Clear and Consistent Communications – expecting people to just ‘get it’ is not a great way to keep consistency in your culture. There needs to be an ongoing dialog on what you are trying to build as a team. People get busy and sometimes fighting those day-to-day fires makes them lose sight of the goal. Keep it in front of them through clear and consistent communication.
- Leaders Who ‘Walk the Talk’ – employees generally look to leadership to get a sense of where to ‘buy-in.’ If your organizational message is one thing but leaders are doing another or not being held accountable to that same message then employees get a message that tells them that cultural behaviors and norms are not important and will follow in kind.
Be sure that the elements above and as well as the processes, tools, systems, organizational structure you have in place is lined up with your intended culture. Misalignment bogs things down and frustrates employees and customers, which can damage engagement.
Does every organization realize they are cultivating some sort of culture? No, and the ones that do tend to have a leg up, because they understand that their culture needs to support their mission value and goals to be successful long-term. Companies that get this hire the people who feed their culture. They pay, reward, and recognize those that exemplify the aligned behaviors, and they quickly move those not aligned with the culture out. They consistently and clearly communicate the core elements and expectations. They align processes, messaging and structure to drive the desired culture and have leadership that embody these elements.
Is culture 100% controllable? No, as you will always have unknowns that may have an impact. For example, you can hire for fit, but no 2 individuals are alike and will bring a tweak to how they view or approach a similar concept. This will surely have some role in shaping your overall culture, but if the general values alignment is there the key components you want to cultivate will follow.
Peter Drucker famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If you aren’t being, at least somewhat, intentional with this component of your organization then you are also letting fate or dumb luck drive your strategy and long term outcomes. Companies that tend to put some investment in their culture typically have highly engaged employees who get the purpose of the organization, how they fit in, and represent that to its stakeholders.