Culture isn’t a Pop-a-shot, but what is it (and how to impact it)?
23rd June 2019
Culture could not be a bigger buzzword. It’s in the headlines from professional sports (think New England Patriots — boo) to Hollywood, It is the first thing any organization wants to talk about – their culture. Just type “work hard play hard logistics” into Google… woof. KJ McMasters at Talent Solvers, a recruiting firm that specializes in finding freight and logistics talent, helped me with this post. He dubs this concept “man-made culture”. A suite of “perks” meant to approximate culture.
Companies struggle to understand culture, and struggle more to impact it – I’m certainly not telling you anything you don’t already know (yet). The reality is, culture is a “know it when you see it” thing. We talk about a pingpong table, or free lunch on Fridays as “the thing” because it’s like marking a product guaranteed, we think its a soft signal of quality (it’s not).
Don’t misunderstand – as KJ put it “we love happy hours as much as the next person! But, that’s not culture. Culture is a set of beliefs.” Happy hours and Pizza parties are important, they’re just not culture. The drivers of culture are not obvious. Whether someone leaves the office feeling great, or terrible, is a series of small interactions with coworkers, leadership, and customers.
The struggle is that good and bad cultures seem to happen by accident, but they don’t. Great culture, or terrible, every company can move culture in a positive direction and this post just scratches the surface. In future posts, we’ll explore these concepts in greater detail to help you transform your business.
Understand “Cultural Fit”
Irrespective of whether the culture is good or bad, companies develop confirmation bias around the employees who see the culture the same way leadership does (i.e. as a good one), and discount those who see the cultural struggles. Take an honest look at the culture you have today, to see the good and the bad. You have to avoid judging employees by how well they “buy-in”, instead look for the ones who want to push your culture forward toward your aspirational values. Whether you have it or not, even the companies with the worst culture know what culture they want. ‘[P]erks, while nice to have, in no way reflect an organization’s culture. Instead, we believe culture is made up an organization’s values, and the people who embody those values”, says KJ.
The next step is applying this to hiring, which will be covered next time (#cliffhanger)
Nurture the natural
This is the one you are always trying to wrap your head around. You see “the natural” in the “bad fits” – the ones who poison the well. The well poisoning is the natural consequence of this “bad apple”. So you know that culture is not just top down. It is also something that happens organically from a series of inputs, one of which is the people in the seats, doing the work. The secret is that this can be used to positively impact your culture.
Every organization has natural culture that ebbs up to the surface from the individual personalities within the office. In fact, offices often have many cultures or cultural pockets – both good and bad. Seize opportunities to identify and encourage the natural, positive parts of culture that surface because these are more authentic, and impactful, than the “top down” ones. Empower employees to define their own culture, and glom on to enhance what they are doing. And be creative. KJ’s advice – “[l]ook for people who are making the noise, and willing to do the work, to keep moving you in that direction”. The last part is the key – Our work is to build space for those unique cultures/outliers to progress in a way that is in line with our mission and espoused values,, and to be proactive in challenging negative aspects before they become cultural norms.
Invest in people
As KJ points out – you invest an incredible amount to recruit new employees and you have to invest in their continued success. Investing in your people is a surefire way to improve culture. My dad would always say “action speaks louder than words”, and investing in your people improves culture for that one obvious reason – you can tell people you want them to be successful, but this SHOWS employees that you want them to be successful.
Training is an enormous opportunity to prove to people that you truly believe that their success is paramount. Training is expensive, and time consuming, but is essential. We talked in more detail about the types of training you need to be doing. In the training article, we talk about how providing employees the opportunity to learn about leadership skills can provide benefit to the employee, as well as the company, and show “growth”. This also helps reinforce positive culture by giving leaders the skills to positively manage, and demonstrates the company is invested in the future of the individual, not just the bottom line.
Get rid of “Bad Apples”
In our experience, “Bad Apples” are the biggest reason for bad culture. Bad Apples are the employees that suck the life out of those around them. For starters – make sure you’re doing the work on the front end to identify the right fit. It’s easy to get rid of ones that don’t hit their numbers, but the ones that hit all their KPIs and are always “on their grind” — you need to move on from them YESTERDAY. I know all the reasons you are waiting to do it, but don’t. KJ sees this all the time companies fail to “[c]alculate [the] a cost associated with toxicity… [t]his damage can spread across the organization and take months if not years to repair”. Your employees will thank you, and equally importantly, the business will be fine. Everyone will be so glad that person is gone – they will more than pick up the slack. It’s a fact that you need to do it now.
Speaking of “everything will be fine” – everything that can be said about employees in this category can be said about customers. Do the work on the front end through the sales process to identify customers who will drain the culture of your company. For the ones you have now, or the ones that slip through, need to fire bad customers. The impact bad customers have on an organization are far reaching. Leaders feel the pressure from the bad ones, and it shows in how they deal with peers and reports. Getting rid of bad customers shows employees that you believe in their ability to overcome the loss by getting new business, and that you care more about them than the bottom line. Do it.
Culture, just like everything else in business, isn’t immutable. If you have a good culture, or a bad culture, it can and will change. The question is, whether it will get worse or better.