You can’t force workplace culture

You can’t force workplace culture

Websites and publications tailored for entrepreneurs and the startup crowd are saturated with articles and guides on how to create the ‘perfect’ company culture; everything from redesigning offices to throwing more team parties. As a company executive in previous ventures, I often observed my employees at these “company bonding” events and wondered, is this working?

The truth is that a company culture isn’t something that can be forced. An organic process of evolution within a company is a far more successful way to build a strong workplace culture than a top-down approach. A motivated workplace with cohesive teams is a vital component of a successful business, but when we force the issue, cultures can go from being welcoming and free to feeling uncomfortably mandatory.

When forcing it feels wrong

Starting from the beginning, what is company culture? In broad terms, a business’ culture includes aspects of a company’s vision, its systems, beliefs, language, and most importantly, its habits. Many of these things flow naturally from management as the company’s vision and workflows must be carefully planned and designed or the business may run the risk of being unfocused and disorganized.

Focusing exclusively on vision and workflow as the core of a business’ culture is only one piece of the puzzle. The problem, however, is that many of the missing pieces cannot come from the top as a decree. Employees must personally buy into a new culture and executive orders are not a good first step.

The question we are left with is how we can create a new company-wide shift, without it coming from the top down.

From the bottom up

Successful company culture depends on how well employees and management absorb ideals and policies. Through my experience I have discovered that there are three core processes that companies have to get right.

Consensus-building is the crucial first step. Before deciding to make broad changes, we must turn to our teams to understand obstacles they would like to overcome. Next time you are interested in implementing a new policy around vacation, sit down with your team and listen to their ideas, concerns and needs.

Find out both what they like about the current policy and what they are unhappy with. While we are obviously unable to adopt every suggestion, empathizing with a team and its goals and ambitions can help you implement sustainable change.

Next, identify team members who are already viewed as leaders by their peers. These are the employees who are most likely to drive a new culture among their colleagues and can hail from any level of the company. Giving such individuals more freedom to promote change can encourage creativity and innovative problem solving, leading to better productivity and happier workers.

Lastly, elements of the company culture should be ingrained into your company’s identity. Pixar’s offices, for example, have been designed to resemble the movies they produce, reflecting the company’s ideals and fun-loving culture. Many companies have clear ways of showing new employees and visitors what they’re all about, and it’s important to find a way of expressing your company’s identity thoughtfully and creatively. New recruits should have a process in place to learn about your corporate culture, thereby helping them seamlessly assimilate.

As you begin the process of enhancing and building a company culture, there are useful tools to help you understand how your employees are responding. Ongoing surveys enable employees to express themselves, indicate to them the value of their opinions, and provide you with valuable data for comparison.

For example, employees overall ratings of the qualities (such as values, work environment etc.) of the company are 20 percent higher if the company is deemed to have strong cultures. Gathering these ratings through surveys are a solid indication of the success of your culture-building activities.

A well-rounded approach

The most vital thing to realize is that a company’s culture doesn’t belong to executives. While we approve the biggest decisions and implement objectives, teams are the heart of a company. Forcing new policies that ignore employees’ needs is a surefire way to disenchant them.

Understanding your employees, identifying respected individuals and steadily ingraining values into the company’s identity will enable a dynamic workflow where employees can grow and lead a company to success.

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