Corporate culture permeates every organization, influencing the behavior of every employee. And yet, because culture is so intangible, leaders are often hesitant to dive in to both understand it, and then tweak it so it works well.
In my experience over the past twenty years, most leaders:
- Do not realize that their culture significantly hinders or supports performance and the implementation of strategies.
- Do not know whether their culture generates unacceptably high risks of unethical or illegal conduct.
- Do not see why a reorganization or acquisition is doomed to failure because leadership has failed to create a common culture, generating frustration that can lead to undesired behavior.
What’s behind this blindness? Leaders are smart people. So why would they hesitate to do something beneficial for the company, especially if the steps are simple and logical?
Almost everyone trying to lose weight or stop smoking knows what he or she should do. Eat less and exercise more. Don’t light up. If we try to understand why we don’t do these simple, obvious things, we realize that there are behavioral roadblocks in our way—for example: “I’ve never had any self-control.” A roadblock such as this requires awareness of the elements that need to be overcome and then of how those elements fit together. Changing behavior therefore requires a series of steps, each addressing a challenge in a way that opens the door to the next step.
Three “power values” are essential to an organization’s success. What are those values?
My work with companies over the past twenty years has shown me that three values —integrity, commitment, and transparency—stand out for their roles in fostering identification and community. I call these the power values because they can influence specific behaviors that will have a positive influence on an organization’s culture. These are the behaviors that will push and nudge the elements that define the organization’s culture, it’s goals, principles, and standards into alignment. The power values do not give you power over other people, but they give you the power to bring out the best in people. By focusing on the specific behaviors that make up integrity, commitment, and transparency, you can transform the negative behaviors that impede effective performance into positive behaviors that support effective performance. Company culture becomes a measurable and manageable tool with which to rev up performance and reduce risk.
The three power values are powerful catalysts for another reason: they are already the personal values that your employees commonly hold. When these three power values are highly visible in an organization, they clarify its intentions and give employees a unifying sense of purpose and direction. Employees who share their principles, goals, and outlook—the essence of the power values—can let their guard down a bit. They can trust that they will be understood, that there will be fewer booby traps, and that their leaders and coworkers will generally act in a predictable way, consistent with their shared values.
What problems surface when these values are off kilter?
In positive corporate cultures, employees can feel good about themselves and their work (commitment), they can raise issues and freely ask questions (transparency), and they do not feel challenged by unfair or inconsistent work processes because people take personal responsibility for their actions and live up to their commitments (integrity).
But when some of the elements of culture are out of alignment, frustrations certainly occur. When the principles are not in alignment with the goals, employees disengage and feel a less vested interest in their work (lack of commitment). When goals move out of sync with standards, unfairness arises as managers and employees “do what they have to do” rather than what they have said they would do (lack of integrity). And when standards are out of alignment with values, employees see that the organization’s actions are not consistent with its principles and it becomes very difficult to ask uncomfortable but important questions and ensure that the truth is heard (lack of transparency).
Are there ways to foster a positive corporate culture right from the start?
Organizational culture is not something that can be faked or implemented by leadership. The culture is simply the way the organization and its people conduct themselves. Organizations have cultures from their very beginning, even though many start-ups do not spend much time defining their culture when they are small and everyone knows one another.
But when a culture goes bad it’s not a sudden event but the result of slow erosion over time. Things begin to change. At the beginning it is small things: perhaps a business decision made in the heat of the moment when the long-term impact of that urgent need was not something the decision-maker felt he or she could deal with at the time.
However, leaders who understand the influential role organizational culture has in shaping behavior and performance will be mindful of what are the early warning signs of trouble. Successful culture management means that leaders know what are the very first steps down the proverbial slippery slope, and will take steps to address those issues when they are very small.
But to do that, leadership must have a clear sense of what kind of culture is needed to achieve the organization’s goals AND what behaviors are needed to ensure that the desired culture is sustained. Successful leaders know that the small things do indeed matter, and that veering off course is not to be done without careful consideration of the impact of those decisions and a clear plan to right the ship.