On paper, work culture is a set of shared assumptions about what work means and what is valued in a company. It includes policies, organizational structures, explicit rules, and the social norms people use to decide how to act in various situations.
However, we all know that work culture really encompasses the unwritten rules of the office. It is the invisible document that tells us how to interact, how we should feel about our interactions, and what (and who) takes priority in decision making. Work culture usually influences your experience on the job and your thoughts about the company itself.
Culture is part of the identity and image of a company. But it is not just internal. It trickles out of your organization through interactions with customers and partners. It leaves and goes home with your employees—it shows up on social media and in office gossip.
So how did your culture get there, and what can you do to change it if it is not serving your employees, partners, and customers?
First, how did your culture get there?
I believe one significant way your culture is created is through work processes and how these are communicated to your employees. So, if your work processes are the Petri dish for your company culture (#nerdalert), so let's dive into how that happens.
I first began to think of this idea when I was studying the late Clayton Christensen's theories on disruptive innovation. In one of his lectures, he talked about how an organization's capabilities – what the organization can and cannot do—is just as crucial to success as individual contributions. In that framework, Christensen identified three factors that contribute to an organization's capabilities: resources (people, tech, cash, relationships), processes (how things get done), and corporate values—as in how things are prioritized concerning the business model.
When thinking about work culture, we often consider leadership or company values. Those are important aspects, but it's easy to see how the process of getting work done can reinforce or create culture. Christensen describes work process like this:
As a task emerges, a plan occurs for handling it. After the task is complete (success), the plan to accomplish the task occurs again and again. The process becomes embedded because it keeps working to complete the task.
This is where things can get sideways. Remember, "success" doesn't mean it is a good process; it is a process that got the job done. And humans are creatures of habit. Once a way of accomplishing things happens enough times, even if it is painful or stressful, the likelihood it will continue to occur is high.
For example, have you ever worked for a company or department that constantly finished important proposals or projects hours before the deadline? That happened because it became the process for completing work. The task emerges, all the resources pull together, and people work crazy hours until completion. Then, the process is solidified by the leadership team recognizing people for giving up their whole weekend, working all night, and missing the birth of their children in a companywide announcement.
When completing things in a certain way is successful for a long time (such as meeting deadlines by prioritizing them as emergencies), it becomes A) an embedded process and B) an underpinning to the culture.
So, what do you do if you have a culture that could use some improvement? Consider the following four things.
Examine your work processes.
Changing a company culture may require facing some uncomfortable truths. Start by looking at your communication and processes.
What themes emerge in company calls? If the bulk of your company communications is thanking people for working ridiculous hours, you create a culture with a singular focus on work output. This approach signals to employees that you must be on 24x7 to get ahead and feel valued. There will always be times when people are stretched, especially for young organizations. However, how you talk about work hours, vacation, downtime, etc., matters. Appoint or hire someone to help you handle internal communication. Or start small. Putting a spotlight on people that chart a mostly steady path in their work will create a completely different experience for your junior employees.
While you should thank people for going above and beyond, examining your processes is crucial if you have a culture focused on work output. What is your company's formula for getting work done? If you don't know, ask. If your processes are impacted by budget and people are stretched, search for ways to leverage talent. Hire brilliant people and look for ways to add automation. Ask your people where they think efficiencies could be added. Look at your labor-intensive and reoccurring items to see how you can use technology to support those functions. There is no shortage of software and systems to support workflows, add automation and reduce duplicated efforts.
As a side note, I believe strongly in keeping a log or journal of your work. It is extremely beneficial in showing you where you spend your time.
People are often moved up in seniority because they are good at their job. But that doesn't make them good managers. Managers get bogged down in managing numbers when a company is focused singularly on work output, and leadership skills slide off the to-do list. You end up with these incredible people who are good at numbers and solving problems, but you lack bench strength in communication, coaching, and emotional intelligence! And while it's great that a department can hit goals or bang out killer proposals, that doesn't always mean that the people are kind to one another or that the work isn't disorganized.
I once worked with a senior leader that called himself a mentor but was known to yell at junior employees for trying new things. He was brilliant and could have been a great mentor, but he didn't know how to share his valuable organizational knowledge. He felt frustrated that people didn't come to him; his team felt like their ideas were not welcome. Training can solve that!
Organizations must emphasize leadership skills to foster innovation and cultivate talent. Consider instituting a coaching or mentoring program to help people reach their full potential at all levels of the organization.
Decide and take a stance.
When was the last time you looked at your company values? You don't need a long list of corporate values to establish your culture—and frankly, most of them are unmemorable. You are better off picking a few major things, communicating them often, and sticking to them. As an extreme example, remember when Netflix made news for sticking to its corporate values when several senior executives were fired for office gossip?
That may seem harsh—but it does create an environment of openness and discussion. There is also no doubt about what is important to the company internally and externally!
Culture belongs to no one and everyone.
Let's be real. A lot of companies have a culture problem because no one owns it. Or sometimes, we make the mistake of pinning this responsibility on just one person or department. A better way is through a diverse group of people, such as a special committee, that can spot issues and course correct. When you build a culture committee of team members across all functions (both remote and in-house), you can make some real magic happen. It provides a platform where people can work together for the good of the company and improve the experience of all employees.
As your business grows and changes, it's important to remember that work culture evolves. Great culture begins with understanding how your culture got there and taking meaningful action to create something you are proud of. A company's process for doing work is just one of many things that can contribute to culture over time.
I don't propose that changing something big like company culture is an easy task. Communicating the big "why" behind changes and making culture a meaningful part of the company's priorities will go a long way in decreasing resistance to new ideas.
Your company culture can define the success of your business and influence how people feel about coming to work. When you improve the working environment for your employees, it trickles down to every part of your business. The stakes are high, but so too are the rewards!
I'm obsessed with big wins for small teams! When you are ready, here are 4 ways I can help:
messaging that literally speaks to employees and customers
fine-tune sales language to close more business
1:1 coaching to get you to the next level
a deep dive into customer-centric thinking to leave your competitors in the dust