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There are countless management books on the shelves and articles floating around online that promise to teach us how to create a strong company culture. There are myraid software systems and apps that promise to bolster your culture through a few clicks. But despite all this, many leaders find themselves pervasively challenged with shaping and protecting their culture.
Simply put, culture is how we do stuff. It represents the dynamic exchange between our explicit and implicit beliefs, values, emotions and behaviors. It informs our identity and shapes how we work. And while many companies might have a shiny poster above the water cooler stating their lofty mission and values, culture is often much more nebulous and difficult to articulate in practice.
A positive and intentional organizational culture is essential to the health of any business. A recent analysis from MIT Sloan Management Review showed that toxic culture is 10.4 times more likely to cause an employee to leave their job than compensation issues. Conversely, companies focused on cultivating a positive culture saw a 72% lower attrition rate alongside a 29% increase in profit.
So how do you define, grow and protect the value of your company culture against all of the forces that work to undo it?
Maintaining a dynamic culture
As a leader, you must define the cultural expectations for your people. What are your core values? What is important to you? What are the behaviors you aspire to embrace? The answers to these questions ultimately need to become clear and understood by everyone in the organization or you will have an unintentional culture made up of the sum of parts rather than an intentional culture guided by your values and beliefs.
Furthermore, establishing organizational culture is not a “set it and forget it” task. You cannot simply define your core values, present them on a PowerPoint slide and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done.
Culture is dynamic and therefore requires constant maintenance and attention to preserve and protect. Every company’s culture will need to be tailored to the unique needs of the individuals within it, but it must also be dynamic and able to adapt to sudden change or unexpected events.
Like the human body, there are times when a toxic agent may invade your organization. Culture threats left ignored or swept under the rug engender toxic behavior, erode company culture and can tear apart all of those within it.
When toxic behavior occurs, we cannot shrug it off and claim, “We’re too busy to deal with that” or “It’s not such a big deal.” Such justifications will gnaw at the trust you’ve established with your employees and leave them feeling disillusioned by your leadership. The discrepancy between what you say and what you do undermines your leadership and creates a culture debt that can sink even the most well-intended leaders.
That being said, immediately dealing with toxic behavior does not mean you need to fire every employee who does not follow your core values to the letter. Things aren’t always black and white, and you need to allow for coachable moments.
For example, you might find yourself dealing with an employee whose behavior is often unacceptable, but who also shows great potential. In cases such as this, you should make it clear that regardless of the value they bring to the company, their behavior must align with the organization’s values if they wish to continue working in your organization. As you begin coaching the employee to course-correct their behavior, you must make it clear to others that you are taking the situation seriously and are working to improve it.
I believe there is room for growth in all people, and you want to give your employees the opportunity to learn and adapt. However, if a problematic but otherwise exceptional employee has been given multiple chances to improve yet remains unwilling to meet your clearly stated expectations, you may need to eventually terminate the relationship. You cannot allow toxic behavior to infect your company indefinitely.
Connection and community
The best communities have mastered the paradox between difference and similarity. Great cultures exist in communities that celebrate diverse views and backgrounds while sharing the intensely motivating feeling of being on the same team. In this way, community becomes a force multiplier on your organizational culture. When your core values are applied and displayed in behaviors big and small, every employee feels safe and secure knowing that the entire team lives and works by the same values.
This sense of cohesion between our values and our actions starts at the top. Whether speaking to the delivery person or leading a meeting, your actions must be consistent with what you preach. If a leader does not walk their talk, their employees won’t either — and any culture the company has established will be crushed under the weight of the culture debt that is engendered when there are discrepancies between what a leader says and how they actually behave. It is your job as a leader to prevent this debt from accumulating by clearly defining and living the values of your organizational culture every day.
The forces working to tear your organization’s culture apart can be insidious. If you don’t pay attention, you could wake up one morning to discover that your company values have disintegrated, toxicity has emerged and your people are beginning to abandon ship. And even scarier is considering how you may be playing a role in it!
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Leaders must prioritize organizational culture if they want sustained success. With integrity, attention and care, you can cultivate a professional environment that makes people feel supported, respected and excited to come to work every day to participate in the dynamic community you have co-created.