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Ignore your culture and it’s likely to go away.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, MA, SHRM-SCP is owner/CEO of Strategic Communications, LLC, and a marketing and communication strategist. Pophal is an accredited member of SHRM, IABC, and the American Marketing Association. She writes about topics like leadership, strategic HR skills, and strengths-based coaching for sites including Forbes and ADP.

Corporate culture is a big deal these days, and it’s likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Companies are recognizing the critical role that culture plays when it comes to building and supporting a strong brand, both internally and externally. Culture is, or should be, an important consideration when recruiting and hiring employees, when providing performance feedback, when giving promotions, and when terminating employment relationships.

But culture can’t be left to chance. Without explicit and focused, attention, your culture is likely to ebb, flow, and even deteriorate, driven by factors you may not even realize exist.

Understanding corporate culture

“We use the word ‘culture’ fairly arbitrarily, citing it to explain why things don’t change, won’t change, or can’t change,” says Linda Henman, PhD. Linda is also the founder of Henman Performance Group, a leadership consulting firm in St. Louis, Missouri, that works primarily with C-suite leaders and coauthor of The Merger Mindset. But while “corporate culture” is a phrase that’s bandied about quite a bit, what does it really mean in a practical sense?

According to Henman, culture is a powerful force that “anchors strategy and creates the environment where the best people can do their best work.” She defines culture as “the way we do things around here.”

“Whether strong, weak, positive, or toxic, culture is a major driving force in organizations,” says Deb Kirby, PhD, organizational consultant and founder of Imaginal Wisdom. “Unfortunately,” she continues, “Most leaders only understand their culture at the most surface levels, unaware of the actual influences responsible for what’s really going on in their organizations, such as unconscious values, beliefs, assumptions, and habits that, when unattended, may be the culprits creating the toxic workplace.”

She elaborates further: “Even when communication may appear to be effective or consistent, it may miss the mark.”

the importance of organizational culture in the workplace the predictive index

How culture is impacted

There are a few primary ways that an organization’s culture can be impacted. From an organizational structure, or evolution, standpoint, culture is impacted as an organization grows, when leadership changes, or when a company merges with, or acquires, another company. These are points in time when organizational change is so significant that cultural impact is predictable. These types of impacts are predictable and, if well managed, can be very positive.

Culture may also be impacted in less positive ways, as alluded to earlier. Every member of your organization has an opportunity to impact corporate culture in positive or negative ways.

“Decision makers create culture as they go along, sometimes consciously, often unconsciously,” says Henman. “Leaders set the tone at the top.”

When your culture is well-defined, strong, and explicitly supported, negative impacts are less likely to occur. But, if your culture has not been explicitly defined, is not clearly supported or modeled by senior leaders, and is not monitored on an ongoing basis, negative impacts are more likely.

Once defined, there are two key requirements that are foundational to a strong culture:

  • Ongoing communication in support of that desired culture
  • Goal alignment

“Once your company has defined and outlined what its culture is to look, sound, and feel like, communicating your company’s mission, vision, and values must be a continuous process throughout an employee’s life cycle, and should start before an employee is ever hired,” says Libby Mullen, learning and development manager with BizLibrary.

While senior leaders set the stage, front-line managers and supervisors play a critical role in this process.

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Supporting the culture through communication and goal alignment

“Leaders who hope to create exceptional organizations realize they must act as culture managers,” says Henman.

Managers should be consistently coaching their employees and providing specific feedback as to how their behaviors are, or are not, aligned with the company’s culture, says Mullen. “For instance, if your company has a core value, ‘Respect Others,’ and an employee is regularly interrupting conversations and making negative comments about others’ ideas during brainstorming sessions, a manager can share these specific behavioral concerns and link them back to a core value. On the positive side, if a core value is ‘Passion to Be the Best,’ and an employee regularly produces excellent projects and seeks out opportunities to refine and improve skills, coach and recognize the employee on how these behaviors align with the company value.”

Importantly, the process of supporting a corporate culture is one that is ongoing and extends across each employee’s life cycle with the organization.

“Seamless communications between all stakeholder groups should become an integrated tapestry, incorporating hiring, orientation, training, meetings, strategy development, and leadership development in such a way that former obstacles no longer have a place to thrive and organizational resilience, agility, and creativity have a place to flourish,” says Kirby. “In its assessment of whether communication is seamless, management should take a hard look at any conflicts between what it says it values and what it actually rewards.”

And, speaking of rewards, they play a critical role in supporting the desired culture.

Putting your money where your mouth is

Edoardo Binda Zane is a consultant and trainer for corporations, startups, and NGOs in Berlin, Paris, and Milan. “Apart from the obvious—setting clear goals, processes, and expected behaviors—there is one issue with a large disruptive potential that, in my experience and opinion, should be given a much stronger role,” says Zane. “Explicitly aligning rewards to culture.” This is always true, he says, but can play a particularly powerful role in situations where leaders are attempting to change or shift the current culture.

“If a company decides to become more aggressively innovative, for example, their values and focus will change—there will be more attention on market research, on testing hypothesis, on learning about their clients, and so on,” Zane says. But, he asks: “What happens if a team manager’s bonus is still anchored to quarterly profits?”   

Organizational leaders need to understand that employees are always watching. That old management adage about the importance of “walking the talk” is an old adage for a reason—it’s not what you say, but what employees observe you do that has the most impact.

If organizational leaders don’t do a good job of effectively and consistently communicating and reinforcing mission, vision, and values, the corporate culture is likely to deteriorate, becoming weak or nonexistent. That opens the door for unhappy employees to create a toxic workplace. In a future post we’ll take a look at how leaders can respond most effectively in situations where employees may be attempting to buck the culture in ways that can create a toxic work environment.

Lin is a business and HR journalist.

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