Six best practices for shaping organizational culture

Six best practices for shaping organizational culture

With the start of a new year, it’s time to rethink your organization’s culture and not just its goals. Here are best practices for leveraging your culture to create business success.

Winnow your list of values

Across the street from my house sits a welcoming red-tile-roofed Catholic grade school campus with bright white adobe walls. The children wear navy blue uniforms, and the well-kept Catholic Church at its center has the charm only decades can bestow. School leaders recently placed banners naming the school’s values on the wire-fenced wall enclosing the playground:

  • Sharing
  • Stewardship
  • Respect
  • Service
  • Gratitude
  • Empathy
  • Cooperation
  • Celebration
  • Building peace

The school has too many values! What is the essence of the culture the school is trying to create? I understand the fine-tuning the administrators sought to articulate – empathy is different than gratitude – but what is at the school’s core? What differentiates it from the public school experience a few blocks away? I’d suggest, “Building peace, together” as a core value that everyone can remember because it requires all the others (people need to share, respect, empathize, cooperate, and serve to create genuine peace; stewardship, gratitude, and celebration help you sustain it).

How many values does your organization have? Try for no more than two to four.

Represent values as actions

“Integrity” is a word so often found on corporations’ lists of values. What does that word mean, after all? Action verbs shape culture, not nouns. If you want your core values to mean something, they must be norms of behavior that can be seen or heard on a videotape of your organization at work. Otherwise, one person’s sense of “cooperation” as helping others and getting along will be another’s “do not speak up or express concerns.”

Collaborative is another word often used in values statements. What does it mean? Translating it into norms of behavior makes it an actionable part of culture. Here is my translation:

  • Work from the premise that no one person or group has the whole answer.
  • Search for common ground and return to it when stuck.
  • Do not make assumptions about others’ motives (as they may disagree for non-self-serving reasons).
  • Use conflict to learn not merely debate.
  • Seek feedback from others.

Understand actual versus stated values

What leaders say and how the company operates can often be at odds; corporate statements are the tip of the iceberg hiding what’s happening—the deadly ice block—beneath. (Schein) The greater the gap, the more cynical and less committed the employees.

A CEO I know declared collaboration as key to his company’s culture. “I’ll fire anyone who is not collaborative,” was his mantra when failure to collaborate created barriers for a business unit whose success relied on other business units’ cooperation. But individual incentives, measurement systems, and the CEO’s habit of pitting one executive against another in a gladiator-type stadium environment created the actual culture. Other business units, when they did cooperate, offered too little too late. And no one was ever fired for not being collaborative. The real culture was individualism.

Create and change culture in the leadership team

If you want to change your culture, change how leaders work with one another. Forget buy-in. Do, instead. For example, until employees see leaders of different silos working together, they will remain protective of their part of the organization. If you want a collaborative organization, start with the leadership team.

Treat culture as an asset

It’s the hardest part of your company to copy. Hire, fire and promote based on the desired culture, not just skills, experience and performance.

Evolve the culture when it’s a barrier to the organization achieving its full potential

Your organizational norms reflect what worked in the past for individuals and the company to succeed. Therefore, some aspects of the culture may no longer work when markets or business models change. I admired Apple for breaking with its past of tight control over all elements of its offerings to become a hub for music and software applications and building an ecosystem that is good for shareholders, customers and employees alike. Uber’s aggressive culture is creating drivers’ preference for Lyft and pushback from communities. This cultural trait will inhibit Uber’s future success, in my book. Did you read about California’s DMV shutting down Uber‘s brazen placement of self-driving cars on San Francisco’s roads?

How does the reality of your culture and values match your organization’s statement? Is your culture an asset? How might you make it one?

Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. She resides in San Diego, California but still considers Madison home. She is the author of Beyond Price.  This post was originally posted at Kay’s blog ~ Business Model Innovation.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.