By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager
In Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, the authors define the title word as unwanted variability and describe how this destructive quality affects many social constructs, including business. They explain that a company becomes “noisy” when employees’ decisions and behaviors don’t align with other team members or the leader’s strategy. This kind of noise can drown out a company’s potential for success.
When a business is small and starting out, its leader can ward off unwanted variability by modeling “how things are done around here.” Then, as employees emulate their boss, they establish the behavioral norms that become the company’s culture. This organic method of setting standards works at first.
But as a company grows, people become increasingly distanced from the leader’s example and begin to exercise more individuality in the way they operate. With today’s remote and hybrid work models, even a small staff can start to function this way.
A staff with the best intentions can become unfocused and inconsistent if everyone uses different criteria to make decisions. Competing micro-cultures often evolve in this kind of organization because people lose sight of the founder’s core standards of conduct.
Building Company Culture
Fractionalization can put a company on shaky ground because the quality of its culture heavily influences every part of its operations and, ultimately, the bottom line.
Leaders who understand that corporate culture impacts their company’s performance look for ways to strengthen and improve it. Many develop a set of formal values for their staff to use as guideposts. But establishing company values isn’t enough to cut through the noise and generate a strong culture.
That’s because values are abstract concepts that can be interpreted in multiple ways and are hard to apply practically. So beyond being inspirational, they do little to impact how a team functions every day.
If leaders want to create and sustain a vibrant, high-performing culture, they must become even more intentional in their approach. They need to develop a process to make it happen.
Hold on. A Process for Culture?
In his book, Culture by Design, CultureWise CEO David Friedman notes that the idea of being methodical about culture doesn’t come naturally to most executives. Even though process orientation is standard for every other aspect of business, many think culture is too esoteric for a plan or a system.
He describes several reasons why people feel this way:
- Culture is seen as a “soft” issue. Leaders are more comfortable creating plans for more concrete areas like sales, operations, and finance, which are easy to measure and track.
- Culture is perceived as an HR topic. Because it’s people-centric, leaders often relegate culture to their HR team and don’t include it in their financial strategy.
- Culture is less controllable. It’s relatively easy to standardize high-quality products and service options. But people’s idiosyncrasies, issues, and challenges make it much harder to get a team to perform consistently.
- Culture isn’t a focal point in business education. Most business schools teach subjects like marketing, strategic planning, and finance in-depth but gloss over culture. Consequently, leaders lean into working on what they know and understand.
- Culture is organic. After creating a vision, mission, and values, and setting a good example, many leaders think culture will evolve independently. They’ve never considered “engineering” the culture they want to see.
Essentially, many CEOs don’t do much about culture beyond acknowledging its important role in their business. But it pays to take a more purposeful approach.
In his book, Friedman explains how it’s not only possible to develop a process to mold company culture; it is relatively simple to do. Moreover, it should be a priority.
Given its enormous influence on differentiation, productivity, and performance, culture should be a central part of every CEO’s overall strategy.
And just as they do for every other business area, leaders should have a systematic plan to develop their company culture.
The First Step
Before they develop a plan, a leader should envision the ideal culture for their organization. Then, instead of relying on vague “values,” they should nail down in writing the behaviors that will bring that culture to life.
As the authors of the Gallup article, “Can Your Organization Sustain Your Culture as You Scale?” put it: “Leaders need to speak the unspoken, write the unwritten.” They can’t take for granted that employees will infer how they’re supposed to perform or the habits and attitudes they should develop to carry the company forward. “Attributes,” they stress, “have to be explained to be actualized.”
Leaders instinctively know the characteristics that breed success. The trick is to articulate those traits so their staff can understand how to live up to them. David Friedman’s advice about this is to avoid popular buzzwords or phrases. Instead, he tells CEOs to “look inside yourself to identify the things that are meaningful to you.”
He recommends that leaders ask themselves several questions to get started:
- What are the things that, if done more consistently, would make your company amazing?
- What are the things you often “rant” about?
- What are the things that drive you crazy when you see them happening? What would be the opposite of these behaviors?
- Who in your company do you wish you could clone? What do they do that makes you feel this way?
This kind of introspection will help leaders formulate a list of authentic behaviors that will become the foundation for the culture they want to build.
The Process Beyond the Definition
The exercise of defining and describing preferred behaviors lays the groundwork for building a strong culture. Once established, leaders need to devise ways to communicate, coach, and practice these behaviors with their staff.
As with any other business methodology, the process of developing organizational culture is ongoing.
“The biggest mistake executives make is figuring out their business inside their own minds and keeping it to themselves without inspiring a staff through culture and messaging. What makes a business successful is when leaders are crystal clear on what they want their organization to be, and they repeat and reinforce that message constantly.”
David Friedman contends that driving culture is primarily a teaching function and lays out specific methods to get the concepts across to staff in Culture by Design. He recommends creating rituals to practice the desired behaviors so that they become second nature to employees.
“One of the reasons rituals are so powerful is because they shift the teaching of the behaviors from being ‘episodic’ to being ‘systematic’. By incorporating daily and weekly rituals to practice these behaviors together in our work life, we create multiple opportunities to think about, discuss, and internalize them.”
The Ripple Effect of Establishing Culture
No one has the same level of influence as a company’s founder or CEO. But, but the leader can’t “operationalize” culture in a growing organization on their own. They must also enlist their managers as standard bearers and agents for the culture-building process to work. As noted in the Gallup article, “managers are the key transmitters of culture” day in and day out.
With the leader’s model, guidance, and plan, the next part of the process is for managers to instill culture standards into the workforce. They can do this by:
- Regularly communicating, demonstrating, and prioritizing the behaviors defined by the leader
- Helping team members understand how their everyday actions and attitudes connect with organizational goals
- Encourage employee engagement by recognizing people’s performance in context with the culture
When such a process is implemented, managers can effectively reflect and reinforce the leader’s vision for culture. Team members will be able to follow consistent patterns of behavior throughout the organization. And the culture has the infrastructure to remain dynamic and intact as the company changes and expands.
Trust the Process
Because a company’s culture impacts its potential for success more than anything else, it’s much too important to leave it up to chance. The most dependable way to sustain the culture exemplified by an organization’s leader is to set up a process to codify and preserve it.
When developed with intentionality, culture becomes the force that keeps everyone within an organization operating cohesively and at their maximum potential. An ongoing process to support and enhance culture prevents the unwanted variability, or “noise,” that can undermine company goals.
To learn more about the process of building and maintaining a culture that drives success, explore the CultureWise website. And stay abreast of the latest news and developments affecting corporate culture with a complimentary subscription to the CultureWise newsletter, Culture Matters.