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Article No.: 1903, March 1, 2019

Article Title: Understand Culture Before You Try to Change It

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, CEQC

Before I work with a new client company, I go to my first meeting 20 minutes early and sit in their lobby, just observing and listening.  Within that time frame, I can glean a grDr. Linda Gravett photoeat deal about the company culture, which I define as “the way things are done around here.”  I observe whether employees that pass through the lobby are smiling, and whether their demeanor is upbeat or discouraged.  I notice how quickly people are greeted when they enter and connected with the person they’re visiting.  I listen for laughter behind the doors to conference rooms and offices.  I notice whether colors are cheerful.  These are all clues to the workplace culture.

Maybe you’re wondering right now what I would learn from sitting in your lobby.  Or maybe you already know.  In any event, as a leader from where you are in your organization, there are ways you can positively impact and sustain the culture.  First, though, you need to know how people actually view the workplace culture rather than how you wish it was.

Sometimes in brainstorming sessions with clients I’ll ask participants to draw how they “see” their job and workplace.  Under the drawing, I ask them to list 5 – 10 aspects of their work and workplace that they enjoy.  Under that list, I ask them to write what they would change about their work and workplace to make their work experience even better.  The conversations that emerge from this activity are enlightening and surface numerous ideas about aspects of the workplace that could be enhanced.

Over the last several years, I’ve observed strong patterns for elements of a successful, engaging workplace culture.  These include:

  •  Leaders foster employee development and educate and encourage people to positively impact the Mission, Vision, and Objectives of the company  
  • Leaders provide avenues for competent, engaged employees to exercise their talents and receive recognition for contributions  
  • Leaders conduct dialogues with employees frequently to solicit ideas and changes that could make products or services better 
  • Compensation and rewards are tailored for individual employees needs

If your organization’s culture doesn’t contain any of the elements above, then you and your leadership team have some challenges ahead.  I suggest you begin with reflection on ways you can engage peoples’ hearts and minds in the company’s Mission and Values so you can help them align their personal path to fulfillment to the company’s path towards excellence.

I’ve found in my work with companies around the world that there are some features of culture that are imbedded and hard to glean, yet they form the framework for “how we do things around here”.  These features are:

  •  Culture is learned 
  • Specific norms and traditions are common throughout the culture 
  • Culture operates often on a subconscious level 
  • Cultural characteristics are initiated and sustained through social mechanisms and organizational processes

This all probably sounds right, and good, and like a workplace we all want to exist within.  The question becomes, what gets in the way of this occurring in every U.S. organization?!  The barriers, I’ve learned, fall into these areas:  people skills and process skills. 

As leaders, I believe we can engage in specific behaviors that address shoring up people and process skills.  We can:

  •  Be clear in our vision of a successful culture by addressing the question, “What does the culture we want look like?”  
  • Determine what competencies leaders and individual contributors require in order to build the ideal culture 
  • Conduct a cultural assessment through focus groups, online questionnaires, or the like and identify gaps in the current and ideal culture 
  • Prioritize aspects of the culture that need to improve, such as communication of shifts in objectives and goals 
  • Engage with employees to brainstorm concrete steps to enhance the current culture  
  •  Craft an action plan that is included as an integral part of the company’s strategic plan 
  • Set specific, concrete success measures for the action plan 
  • Implement the action plan and monitor progress, addressing barriers head on when they surface
  • Recognize and celebrate success 

The small, day-to-day efforts are the ones that can have a lasting impact on your organization’s culture.  We now have “power huddles” at my company where we’re empowered to bring a few people around a convenient high-top table for 5- 10 minutes to share something new we’ve just learned.  We leverage our energy by sharing and brainstorming ways we can implement the “great new idea” in our company.

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