Getting Clear about Culture
Often, when a company completes administering an employee survey, I get this question from clients:
“Why is our culture score low when our engagement is so high?”
Culture and engagement are thought of interchangeably, but they’re two very different concepts. Here’s a clear way to differentiate between them:
Culture vs. Engagement
Engagement is about employee commitment to their work and the work of their organization.
Culture is made up of the behaviors, practices, and values that guide how work gets done and how employees work with each other.
While both are important, a high-performing culture is the leading indicator of organizational success. Culture isn’t about team lunches and holiday parties. It’s the behaviors within your organization that fuel innovation, drive retention, and enable success. If your company’s culture isn’t well-tended, it becomes a barrier to all of the above.
Organizational culture in action becomes evident in a variety of situations. We can see it in how a manager handles a mistake made by a direct report, in how a CEO addresses employees following a great year, and in how a team responds to changing customer needs.
Breaking it down…
Culture is comprised of the beliefs of an organization.
These beliefs give rise to values.
These values give rise to behaviors.
When evaluated, if those behaviors are successful in meeting business goals and objectives, they are sustained.
If they are found unsuccessful, leaders and team members develop new behaviors that give rise to new beliefs, values, and behaviors.
Organizations that have great cultures have sustainable and repeatable business success. Although some leaders believe that culture is a “soft metric” that it is far more qualitative than quantitative, that is untrue. Numerous research studies support the importance and bottom-line value of investing in culture. In fact, companies with a strong culture have seen up to four times the revenue growth than those that don’t cultivate it.
What does it look like when an organization has a strong, well-developed culture?
- Employees are clear about their company’s goals and objectives.
- Employees feel empowered to make decisions because they have well-articulated company values as guardrails.
- Employees can think and do, leading to greater innovation and collaboration.
- Employees can sense that the entire organization is aligned, from top to bottom, across and diagonally throughout all functions and departments.
- Employees feel that there is congruence between organizational behavior and values.
Values are the public statement of the beliefs of the founder/leaders of a company. When a company has a value of inclusion and belonging, this value enables the leader to invite others into meetings where their diverse working styles, experiences, and behavior can yield the best solutions. It’s incumbent upon the leader to create psychological safety for the team to share and ensure that no one person dominates the meeting. The leader will also have to increase their capacity to handle constructive conflict and facilitate healthy conversation. The congruence between espoused values and lived values creates a powerful culture that can consistently and repeatably deliver business results.
You’ll note that none of these elements have to do with geography or proximity. I’ve written about the ways in which remote and hybrid teams can maintain a vibrant culture by focusing on the critical keys to cultural strength. Holding beliefs and talking about values and behaviors aren’t enough. They need to be lived on a daily basis for them to provide the root structure for a healthy, growing organization.
Culturally speaking, you want to coach behaviors, rather than results. When culture is strong business results will follow.
I am working with a client that has six core values. Each is clearly described with accompanying behaviors. These values are highly communicated and it’s the widespread organizational belief that they are key to company success.
A leader I have been coaching shared that one of his direct reports responded to a long-standing vendor in a way that was not consistent with one of their core values: constructive conflict and collaboration. This was an opportunity for the leader to coach his direct report about how to engage and work toward resolution, preserving a 20-year relationship. The leader and I also saw this as an opportunity to further this team member’s understanding of diversity beyond race and gender to include conflict, diversity of thought, and behavior. We can clearly see a strong culture in this organization, as evidenced by the application of values to this external relationship. As a result of this intentional and organizationally-supported approach to conflict, the relationship was saved. The direct report now has a new skill to resolve conflict as a result of his manager’s coaching.
Conversely, a leader at another company shared a challenge they experienced when an employee violated their company’s value of empowerment and integrity. Their reputation was one of “command and control” and it was demonstrated in a meeting I attended. One of their direct reports was unable to respond to a question posed to the group without getting his permission to speak first.
What happened next would demonstrate the health of this organization’s culture:
Did colleagues ignore the situation? Or did the employee who violated the value get negative feedback or consequences?
How about the employees that this person harmed? Did they receive support from colleagues or an apology from the leader for stifling their response?
Ultimately, this leader was asked to leave the organization because of repeated values violations. Although this leader had demonstrated the ability to deliver superior financial performance, leadership determined that the culture would not tolerate the violation of values.
Culture isn’t created or strengthened by activities like fireside chats with the CEO, a manager serving breakfast to their team, or the way your colleagues sign their emails. Instead, it is ingrained and reinforced by how leadership and teammates work together. Culture can be cultivated in a number of ways, including recruitment and recognition practices, enabling and empowering employees, coaching employee performance, and holding people accountable.
High-performing cultures don’t form in a day. However, when reinforced and practiced through genuine, consistent behaviors, a strong culture can help a business grow exponentially and withstand competitive threats and changing market conditions.