How to Strengthen the Culture in Your Organization
Having a strong culture is one of the best assets an organization can have. As business consultant Larry Alton has noted, the benefits include:
- A strong culture gives the company clear values, and helps set and maintain the direction of employees.
- It attracts talent and, more importantly, retains them because people feel connected to the organization.
- It helps the organization’s image, which can help with both recruiting and sales.
On the other hand, a poor, mediocre or ill-fitting culture can drag down your organization.
The good news: if you’re not happy with your culture, you CAN improve it. “It is possible—in fact, vital—to improve organizational performance through culture change,” wrote Harvard Business School Professor Boris Groysberg and co-authors in a tremendous Harvard Business Review article, “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture.”
How do you improve your culture?
- Get a detailed understanding of your existing culture, including evaluating its strengths and weaknesses.
- Identify your desired culture—one that fits your organizations needs and strategic direction.
- Unify your organization around the desired culture.
1. Understanding and Evaluating Your Existing Culture
During the culture roadmap exercises we do with organizations, we emphasize the importance of getting a clear, vivid understanding of the existing culture. This helps us—and, most importantly, our clients—understand and identify the gaps between the existing culture and the desired culture.
Meet with your team to develop that understanding. Examples of questions to answer include:
- How would you describe the organization, as if you were describing a person?
- What does the organization value? What is important?
- What are the “unwritten rules” for doing well here?
- How does the organization handle conflict? Good news? Bad news? Feedback? Deadlines?
- What would a fly on a wall at a typical management meeting see?
- Describe the process for effectively “selling” a new idea in the organization.
- To what extent does the organization hold true to its expressed standards for dealing with its customers? Shareholders? Employees?
2. Identifying Your Desired Culture
Your culture is largely determined by the behaviors that your organization rewards and recognizes—formally and informally and explicitly and implicitly.
As you think of your desired culture, consider which behaviors you want to and don’t want to reward and recognize in your organization. Some of these will have become clear after evaluating your current culture.
To identify your desired culture, it helps to understand your options. Groysberg and his co-authors provided this useful breakdown of eight organizational culture styles, and their advantages and disadvantages:
1. CARING: Warm, sincere, relational
Advantages: Improved teamwork, engagement, communication, trust; sense of belonging
Disadvantages: Overemphasis on consensus building may reduce exploration of options, stifle competitiveness, and slow decision making
2. PURPOSE: Purpose driven, idealistic, tolerant
Advantages: Improved appreciation for diversity, sustainable, and social responsibility
Disadvantages: Overemphasis on long-term purpose and ideals may get in the way of practical and immediate concerns
3. LEARNING: Open, inventive, exploring
Advantages: Improved innovation, agility, and organizational learning
Disadvantages: Overemphasis on exploration may lead to a lack of focus and an inability to exploit existing advantages
4. ENJOYMENT: Playful, instinctive, fun loving
Advantages: Improved employee morale, engagement and creativity
Disadvantages: Overemphasis on autonomy and engagement may lead to a lack of discipline and create possible compliance or governance issues.
5. RESULTS: Achievement, driven, goal focused
Advantages: Improved execution, external focus, capability building, and goal achievement
Disadvantages: Overemphasis on achieving results may lead to communication and collaboration breakdowns and higher levels of stress and anxiety
6. AUTHORITY: Bold, decisive, dominant
Advantages: Improved speed of decision making and responsiveness to threats or crises
Disadvantages: Overemphasis on strong authority and bold decision making may lead to politics, conflict, and a psychologically unsafe work environment
7. SAFETY: Realistic, careful, prepared
Advantages: Improved risk management, stability, and business continuity
Disadvantages: Overemphasis on standardization and formalization may lead to bureaucracy, inflexibility, and dehumanization of the work environment
8. ORDER: Rule abiding, respectful, cooperative
Advantages: Improved operational efficiency, reduced conflict, and greater civic-mindedness
Disadvantages: Overemphasis on rules and traditions may reduce individualism, stifle creativity, and limit organizational agility.
As you consider these culture styles, recognize that there’s no best culture type. Instead, you want a culture that fits your organization’s needs and strategic direction. For example, while an organization in the compliance industry might benefit from the rigidity of a safety or order culture style, the same would not be true for a typical technology company. But the right culture for an organization can change over time due to strategic or market reasons. As Groysberg wrote, “If [a] company’s primary culture styles are results and authority but it exists in a rapidly changing industry, shifting toward learning or enjoyment (while maintaining a focus on results) may be appropriate.”
3. Unifying Your Organization Around the Desired Culture
After getting a detailed understanding of your current culture and determining your desired culture, the goal is to bridge the gaps between the two. Doing so requires leadership and purposeful action.
Groysberg effectively illustrated four key practices that lead to successful culture change.
- Articulate the desired culture. Be clear about why the culture change is needed. Because culture is somewhat ambiguous, referring to tangible goals helps people understand and support the change.
- Select and develop leaders who align with the desired culture. You need your leaders to drive the change. It’s important to recruit leaders who believe in the desired culture, and to provide training and education about the need for the culture change to existing leaders who are initially unsupportive.
- Use organizational conversations about culture to underscore the importance of change. Cultivate discussion so that leaders and employees can talk each other through the change.
- Reinforce the desired change through organizational design. When your organization’s structures, systems, and processes support the desired culture, establishing the new culture becomes far easier. Performance management and training, for example, can be used to encourage employees to adopt desired behaviors.
A Tremendous Impact
Culture change is complicated and affects everyone. It requires effective communication, leadership, process changes, etc.—any of which can break down. Be prepared for some roadblocks.
The effort, however, is worth it.
“When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs,” Groysberg wrote, “culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive.”