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What Is Good Culture Anyway?

A strong and positive workplace culture. Something every business wants to have, but what do we mean by it?

Oddly enough, in my searching, I’ve not found a satisfactory definition of “good culture”. So I’ve decided to come up with my own:

Good company culture is where every employee is respected, valued and encouraged to speak up and have an impact on the future of the organisation.

The early stages of a start-up is a great example of where “good culture” thrives. Every single hire has a voice, the technology is new allowing the company to scale rapidly, and the company is prepared to change direction at any moment, either in terms of what they offer or who their customers are - and they do this quickly and with ease.

But that’s not to say that good company culture can’t exists outside of early stage start-ups. Unfortunately, as start-ups grow, their culture can start to shift - there’s less transparency and employees feel less trusted, and along with trust goes motivation. Psychological Safety is one of the key things at risk as part of this shift - and if you lose that, you lose your culture. If your employees believe that they can’t speak up and provide suggestions to help shape the future of the company, that’s a problem.

The way that departments and people work together has changed, and is continuing to change. 15 years ago it was basically unheard of for marketing and technology teams to be working closely together. I personally have worked long and hard developing a product only for it to be ignored by the marketing team, and therefore have no chance of success. Content, data, analytics, customers, technology - all of these elements are evolving at a rapid pace, and if you’re still operating in siloed organisational structures where these people aren’t working together on a daily basis, good culture is a far-away dream for you.

Photo of person looking over a lake on a starry night
Photo by Tyson Dudley on Unsplash

There are a number of key characteristics that organisations with good culture tend to have:

  1. Flatter hierarchies. Having 10 layers of management slows down decision making, adding complexity for very little gain. Having fewer levels of management improves the co-ordination and speed of communication between people, and employees feel less detached from upper management. In flatter hierarchies, employees take on more responsibility and are empowered to make their own decisions which helps them do their job more efficiently.

  2. Empowerment and trust. You want to avoid the “Us Versus Them” culture, whereby management make all the decisions behind closed doors. Trust your employees to do the job you hired them for.

  3. Build a unified culture. In a nutshell, this means management should behave in the same way that they expect employees to - for example, if management are allowed to attend 3 conferences a year, have the same policy for employees. The same goes for company perks - if one office has a gym and the others don’t, it spurs jealousy amongst staff. Offering a discounted gym membership at a nearby gym to all employees would go a long way towards unity.

If you don’t have these characteristics already, it can be quite difficult to make the change. But, the good news is, you can start to change that right away!

Where to start

As always, start with what you have today - analyse your existing company culture by identifying the current state of the company.

There are 3 aspects to look at:

  1. Values - what the company does, how it represents itself and where it’s going (mission)
  2. Assumptions - what attitudes exist in management and amongst employees
  3. Artifacts - the company’s products, technologies, architecture, processes, location, dress code, etc.

These 3 elements form the organisation’s identity and can be assessed in multiple ways. The actual assessment can be quite difficult as it requires management to step back from the familiar and open your eyes to observe things you don’t normally notice.

A simple step towards this observation is going for a culture walk. This is something management can do regularly to observe organisational culture in action. Pay attention to different areas of the workplace - for example how are the kitchens and common spaces used? What kind of things are on the desks and walls in different team spaces? Also pay attention to your employees - are they having discussions or working in silence? You can observe a lot about the culture you have today by simply keeping your eyes open. In a remote company, instead of physically walking around, try looking at the communication tools you use every day. You could silently join a few team meetings to gauge the tone and emotion when interactions change from text based to audio and video.

There are also tools that can help with your assessment, such as the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) developed by Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron. The assessment is a concise 15 minute online survey which should be taken by people working at all levels, departments and roles of the organisation - the combined results provide you with an overview of your current and preferred culture so that you know which areas to focus on. The results are depicted in a graph with 4 quadrants which represent various culture types, I’ve renamed these types to use more familiar language in the below diagram (Collaborate (Clan), Create (Adhocracy), Control (Hierarchy) and Compete (Market)).

Drawing showing the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI)
Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI)

Once you’ve identified and analysed your existing company culture, you can work upon improving it. You’ll need to run a few workshops, again involving a number of people from across the organisation, to gain consensus on what the future culture looks like. During these workshops some useful questions to ask include:

  • What characteristics do we need to have to create our preferred culture?
  • What characteristics should we reduce to move away from our current culture?
  • What are the most important trade-offs we’ll need to make?
  • How will we support each other?
  • How will we carry on when we start to doubt that our culture shift is working?
  • How will we recognise when our culture has changed? What metrics will we use?

For example, if you want to increase the Create (Adhocracy) Culture quadrant of the OCAI graph (depicted above), you’ll want to have a clear vision of the future, foster creativity and innovation by creating a psychological safe environment for employees to contribute towards the organisation’s future, and encourage risk taking. That doesn’t mean running the business recklessly with no thought or analysis - but having a goal in mind and embracing ideas that contribute to that goal.

Once you’ve gained consensus, you should align this to what makes you successful, using customer feedback and other data as a guide. You’ll also want to take the time to update your company’s mission, vision and values to reflect this. Make sure these are clear, concise, actionable, easily understood, and guide the day-to-day life of the organisation, as well as form the foundation for future decision-making. You should be thinking about what success looks like to the company at different time periods, e.g. 6 months from now, 1 year, 3 years - not just in terms of culture, but also in terms of market success and competitive advantage.

And crucially, involve the wider organisation. Make it explicitly clear why you need to change, and what the future looks like. Allow them to provide feedback and be prepared for some resistance at first, but be prepared to take any suggestions seriously. After all, if your employees don’t feel happy and engaged in the culture where they spend 8 hours a day, they’re not going to be nearly as effective.

Finally, make sure to follow up on this at regular intervals! Just like Agile, instilling a good company culture is not something you can “apply once and move on” - it takes investment and commitment for the entire lifetime of the business.

Takeaway

Good company culture is easy for new start-ups, difficult for everyone else. Transparency, collaboration and trust are key to have highly motivated and engaged employees who care about the future of the organisation and want to be involved in shaping that future. Adopting an Agile or Lean mindset can help you to achieve a better company culture - as long as it is something that is applied to the entire organisation rather than a single team or department.

To change your company culture, you need to start with really understanding your current culture, and identifying what needs to be changed to drive your future success. Collaborate with employees from different levels and roles, and provide them with a space where they can make suggestions without fear of judgement. Simply empowering everyone to speak up, and taking every employee seriously, is the largest step towards a positive culture you can make.