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Save Your Culture From the Vultures

Advice from the Business Coach

How important is company culture, and how best can it be safeguarded? Most of us have worked in positive, empowering environments, and most of us have had to endure the opposite. Sometimes the bad experiences make us appreciate the good ones more, but what matters is that we learn from the problems, identify their root causes and dig them out. There will always be people who, deliberately or not, jeopardize team harmony and accomplishment. We can manage them differently according to their personalities and our own, but we can’t allow them to set the tone.

To establish an organizational culture, we should be clear about what it is. I believe it can be summed up as the way we treat the organization and our colleagues. I’ve heard people include the way we treat customers in the definition but I find it helpful to keep that separate. Good customer service is vital, of course, but it’s possible to put on a smiling face for customers and win their approval while simultaneously showing disdain for the people we work alongside and the people who pay our wages, and there’s nothing healthy about that. So what steps will minimize culture issues and offer a platform for success?

Define the mission

It’s easy to be cynical about mission statements and like so many things that are easy, it’s a bad idea. Identify your organization’s reason for existing in a punchy, easily understandable message and you give yourself and the people around you a daily target to aim for. If we don’t make it clear what people should aspire to, we have no right to be disappointed when they fall short. Good professionals respond well to having a purpose, under-performers can be lifted up and transformed by a few simple words that show them what’s expected and what’s possible, and leaders benefit from having a blueprint to refer back to in moments of doubt.

Recruit for personality, not just for skills

Don’t disregard the skill factor in recruitment, but don’t make technical ability the be-all and end-all either. You might have heard the cliché “You hire the skills but you sack the attitude”. It’s usually trotted out as an excuse for incompetent recruitment. Too many hiring decisions are made by people who fail to gauge how well skills can be applied in a team situation and fail to anticipate how different personalities will mesh. And if you end up sacking the attitude, you’ve almost certainly failed to pick up on warning signs during the interview process. It’s a lot easier to polish the technical skills of someone who’s a perfect fit for your company culture than it is to change the personality of someone technically competent who drags the team under a cloud.

There is no “us and them”

Workplace friendships are a positive, but divisive cliques should be dismantled at the earliest opportunity. That doesn’t mean firing people; it means finding out why cliques have formed, why there’s a distance between people and what can be done to narrow it. We can’t manufacture friendships but we can motivate people to work together for their benefit and everyone else’s. At the very least, we can remove any hint of “us and them”. The only “them” should be our direct competitors in other organizations. Our people should unite against them and in support of the values we’re trying to instil.

Measure the results

It can be tempting to seek out agreement and encourage employees to tell us what we want to hear but, once again, the easy path is the wrong one. Employee engagement surveys are a major asset when feedback is given honestly and received with an open mind. If a small minority seem to be looking for a reason to complain, they might be part of the problem, but that shouldn’t be our initial assumption, and their complaints need to be investigated. If talented, productive people are giving you negative feedback about your company culture, then you’re either on the wrong path or you’re not following it convincingly. High staff turnover is another obvious giveaway, and there are less obvious signs to look out for. If people seem happy on the surface but never refer friends or former colleagues to the organization for vacancies, it’s worth asking why. If people are happy and proud to work for you, they should be happy and proud enough to share suitable vacancies with their network. If no one ever does, the explanation might be innocent or it might point to something you should address.

Reinforce the positive

This isn’t rocket science. Monitoring what works helps you do more of it. If people express satisfaction with team meetings of a certain length at a certain time and the results indicate that these meetings deliver positive outcomes, then standardising meetings along those lines might get even better results. You’ll notice that this article hasn’t made a link between “company culture” and “fun”. That’s not because I’m anti-enjoyment. It’s because fun for its own sake is often a lazy substitute for a positive culture. Asking a group of undervalued employees to put on red noses for Comic Relief won’t make them better at their jobs or happier doing them. Finding out what motivates them can do both. Instead of trying to bolt on “fun” to a miserable day, it will move you towards an everyday working environment that puts genuine smiles on people’s faces.

Business is hard and competitive, and so it should be. A positive culture will make it worth the effort. Good luck saving your culture from the vultures.


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