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How do you establish culture when there hasn’t been any?

Maybe you’ve read some of the many articles and studies about the importance of positive culture in your organization. And now you’re wondering: How do I build culture in my organization when we haven’t done anything like that before?

If you’re in this boat, you’re not alone. Many businesses start out focusing on an idea and bringing that idea to market—whether through a product, service, or other means. New employees are brought on as growth necessitates, without much thought about culture or employee experience.

Now you’re at a point where you recognize the value of organizational culture, but you’re not quite sure how to bring it about.

Years ago, I was hired as a change agent for a company in this exact situation. The organization had grown without focusing much attention on creating an intentional culture and hiring for cultural fit. The result was disengaged employees and an unhealthy work environment. While this is never a fun situation to be in, there’s a way to approach it that can help you turn the culture around.

Step 1: Talk to your employees.

The first aptitude of talent optimization is Diagnose, wherein you collect, measure, and analyze your people data to determine your people problems so you can create a plan of action. This is where you’ll want to start when it comes to defining and building your culture.

Start by having honest conversations with your employees. It may be helpful to bring in a third party, such as a consultant, who’s unbiased and unattached to any feedback your employees might share.

Take the time to understand what they like and dislike about working for the organization. What inspires them? What causes them to disengage? Asking these questions gives you an unfiltered perspective into the employee experience as it currently stands.

This can be an intimidating process for leaders because receiving feedback is never easy. Remember that change can only happen with a clear understanding of where you’re currently at as compared to where you want to be. Honest feedback—while difficult to receive—will ultimately allow you to have a clear picture of your current culture and what needs to change to get it where you want it to be.

Step 2: Bring the feedback to the management team.

Have an open session around how employees feel and how you want them to feel. Try not to get defensive or make excuses for why things are the way they are. This process is about getting clear on what’s working and not working so you can make a plan to address any issues.

Based on the feedback you’re getting, identify what’s working and what’s not. Are there areas of concern that were brought up by multiple employees? Are there themes to the feedback given?

Use these insights to define what kind of culture you’d like your organization to have. What core values would drive your business strategy? Which behaviors will you reward? How will you help employees stay engaged and motivated?

office olympics company culture

Step 3: Make a plan of action.

You may have discovered multiple areas where there’s room for improvement. Instead of tackling them all at once, pick a place to start.

One great place to start is by building trust. If you don’t have trust, the rest will fail. When you’re making organizational changes—especially to culture—you have to have trust that employees will honestly answer questions about the company culture, they have to trust that action will be taken, etc. A trust-based culture will allow you to make the difficult decisions you sometimes need to make because people will know where you’re coming from and you’ll have that trust built up.

In organizations where culture hasn’t been established, lack of trust can run rampant. Reach out to employees to see where mistrust may be stemming from. Ask them why they may not trust the organization or the decisions leadership makes. When employees are departing from your company, ask them why they’re leaving. Then ask yourself: How might we fix these issues?

It could be that you need to communicate how decisions are being made or you need to get feedback from key stakeholders before decisions are made. Perhaps the business strategy is changing frequently and it’s causing employees to feel on edge. Whatever the case may be, determine an appropriate action plan for rectifying these issues.

Hear how Mike McKee, CEO of ObserveIT, built trust on his leadership team:

Step 4: Communicate the action plan.

Be sure to communicate the changes that are taking place. Taking action on feedback helps employees to build trust in the leadership and organization.

At my previous organization, one of the causes of employee disengagement was compensation. Our action plan didn’t involve immediately raising everyone’s salary. Instead, we told our staff that over the next year we’d review our compensation practices and aim to increase compensation to a certain percentile of market value. Over that time, we did a market analysis and made budget improvements as a way of improving our compensation offering. We also worked to share the value of existing benefits that were part of the compensation plan so employees could better understand the value of their current compensation package while we worked to increase their salary.

By communicating the action plan upfront—and sharing progress along the way—we were able to actively turn around drivers of disengagement that were negatively impacting our culture.

While you’re in the process of implementing or changing culture, keep in mind that culture is slow to change. It may take a few months to see the fruits of your efforts, but keep working toward progress! Over time, you’ll start to see your culture shifting in a healthier, more positive direction.

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Jackie is the SVP of talent optimization at PI. She was born in Switzerland but isn't a dual citizen.

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