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There’s so much hype around “company culture”. It’s a popular buzzword thrown around as a solution to a plethora of corporate issues—poor communication, lack of collaboration, biased leadership, hostile work environments, insufficient diversity, and so on.
But if building a better culture is the unifying solution to all your organizational problems, why hasn’t anyone figured it out by now? Why do these corporate maladies continue to plague most businesses?
Clearly, we’re getting something wrong about culture. Part of the problem might lie in our interpretation of culture as a means to keep employees happy.
Ideally, culture should go beyond keeping your employees just “happy”.
Culture is all about purpose, motivation, and mattering—not only to your customers—but also to your workforce.
This becomes especially important in the post-pandemic work scenario of remote and hybrid work. The lines between work and personal life are getting more and more blurry. This can be a good thing (like getting to savor your favorite spaghetti-meatball recipe in pajamas during long team meetings). But the cons are equally off-putting, with work spilling over past work hours and invading the sanctity of your personal space.
How should companies define their company culture
Company culture is a critical aspect of any successful organization. But how should companies define their culture? Is there a set guide to culture-building? And what should the building blocks be?
“Company culture is a fairly new concept in the historical grand scheme of work. One way to describe company culture in the modern context is a set of consistent behavioral traits or habits that have been gradually cultivated within a working environment. It's a constant struggle to retain the same culture over time, and many factors are involved."
— Rauf Fadzillah CEO at Palindrome Communications
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to building company culture, as every organization has its unique set of values and goals. There are several aspects that go into the making of a strong company culture—maintaining radical transparency, recognizing and celebrating employees for their contributions, encouraging open communication, and prioritizing psychological safety for your employees are some strong examples.
You’ll find lots of definitions and examples of what it means to have a strong company culture, but there are some key building blocks that any organization can base its culture strategy on:
Defining company culture is only half the battle—the real challenge is in implementing it. Unfortunately, many executives have no idea how to design and implement a company culture that aligns with their values and goals. This often leads to a disconnect between what the company claims to stand for and how employees actually behave.
Take IBM, for example. IBM's CEO in the 1990s, Louis Gerstner, recognized that the company's hierarchical and bureaucratic culture was hindering its ability to innovate and adapt to the rapidly changing technology industry. To address this, he implemented a cultural transformation, emphasizing collaboration, customer focus, diversity, and learning and development.
Gerstner encouraged a culture of teamwork, breaking down silos and encouraging employees to work together. He also emphasized the importance of customer feedback and using it to inform product development. As a result of these cultural changes, IBM became more agile and innovative, able to keep up with the technology industry's rapid changes. Today, IBM remains a leader in the industry, with a culture that values collaboration, diversity, and innovation.
"There's no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated."
— Richard Branson, British entrepreneur and business magnate
Culture is not optional. Companies need to be intentional about it
Every organization has a culture, whether or not it is intentionally shaped. But the thing is, a culture that is created by accident is unlikely to align with an organization's goals or values. Instead, it can lead to a toxic environment. In contrast, an intentional culture can help drive an organization forward, fostering a positive work environment and inspiring employees to put in their best work.
Identifying and building a guiding set of principles for an intentional culture is critical. As human beings, we’re hard-wired to imitate, so we can be taught, and this means that the culture you establish will shape how your employees behave, communicate and perform.
“Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur. Develop a strong corporate culture first and foremost."
— David Cummings, Co-founder at Pardot
But building a culture is not a one-time event.
Think of it as working a muscle that must be built upon repeatedly—even when you think you're happy with your gains. It must be nurtured, reinforced, and adjusted as needed to stay in line with the company's goals and vision. When culture is intentionally built and consistently reinforced, it can transform a company, improving overall performance.
At the end of the day, leadership informs culture—it begins at the top. Executives must take ownership of building and fostering a strong company culture by modeling the behavior they want to see in their employees, promoting transparency and open communication, and investing in employee development and well-being.
Don’t confuse culture with benefits and perks
What good does it do to send cupcakes to women on International Women’s Day when you make no effort to fight gender bias in the workplace effectively? What good are wellness programs if they’re not accessible or relevant to all employees—like a gym membership that is too expensive for some or fails to accommodate people with different physical abilities?
While benefits and perks are an important part of keeping your employees happy, the essence of company culture lies beyond this superficial realm.
It lies in the way your managers interact with employees and provide feedback on their progress. It lies in how confident your most entry-level employees feel to voice their opinions and concerns. It lies in how employees from underrepresented races and genders feel about their presence in the workplace. It lies in how enthusiastic your employees are, not only about their work but also about collaborating with their peers at work.
These should be your key priorities for 2023
Now that we've explored the ideal characteristics and implementation of a strong company culture, let's examine some essential areas that you can focus on to build a healthy workplace culture in 2023:
- Purpose and values: Establish a clear and compelling purpose and set of values that align with your organization's mission and inspire employees to feel connected and engaged with the company's vision.
- Communication and transparency: Foster open and honest communication between leaders and employees, and prioritize transparency and accessibility in all areas of the organization, from decision-making to performance metrics.
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion: Prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of the organization, from hiring and promotion to training and development, and create a culture that values and respects differences in background, identity, and perspective.
- Wellness and work-life balance: Create a culture that prioritizes employee wellness and work-life balance by providing resources and support for mental and physical health. Create a flexible and supportive work environment that allows employees to manage their personal and professional responsibilities.
- Innovation and continuous learning: Foster a culture of innovation and continuous learning by providing opportunities for professional development and encouraging experimentation and risk-taking, while also recognizing and learning from failures.
Your product might be your strongest muscle but culture is the soul of your company
Peter Drucker couldn’t have been more right when he said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. It is after all, the guiding force that determines how your employees interact with one another, how they approach problem-solving, and how they respond to adversity.
So, while strategy and product innovation are undoubtedly important, it's time we recognize that a strategized approach to culture is equally essential. Take the time to identify your organization's guiding principles, create a people-focused environment that fosters growth and inclusivity, and commit to building a culture that will intrinsically drive your workforce to deliver exceptional results.
“No company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.”
— Jack Welch, American business executive, chemical engineer, and writer