As a leader, how conscious are you of the corporate culture you’re creating in your team or organisation? True, culture isn’t the responsibility of just one person, but leaders have a particular influence and role in defining and modelling culture on a daily basis. If your organisation’s culture isn’t what you’d like it to be, the first place to look is in the mirror.

Behavioural culture

Contrary to popular myth, corporate culture isn’t some intangible, ethereal spirit or feeling. It is a set of behaviours, decisions and language that together generate an environment in which people either thrive or struggle. Culture may be a shared endeavour where everyone has a part to play, but leaders are the ones pulling the levers.

A common mistake I see is too much focus on grand gestures and big announcements to project a cultural message. A carefully-choreographed conference, a major investment in a rebrand or an all-singing, all-dancing launch will be used to signal a culture shift, but within a few weeks – or even days – it becomes clear to employees that little (or perhaps nothing) has changed. It’s the small stuff, the everyday occurrences, that are the key to culture enhancement.

Just as a foul-mouthed parent will fail to change the behaviour of a swearing child, an attitude of “do as I say, not as I do” is doomed to failure. Leaders must model the behaviour and language they wish to see in others on a consistent and conscious basis, not just on special occasions. That’s how culture is built and sustained.

Structural culture

Environment also has a huge part to play in creating corporate culture. Some time ago I was invited by a company to go and help them develop their culture and bring their values to life. One of these values was defined as teamwork, but when we stopped to look at how this might be manifested on a daily basis, it became clear that their lack of office space was physically restricting their ability to work as a team. Due to being in a growth phase, leaders had repurposed every meeting room and communal area for individual offices, leaving nowhere for teams to gather and collaborate. What’s more, their recognition and reward scheme offered no awards for teamwork, only acknowledging individual achievement.

Reward culture

While the key cultural influencers of behaviour, language and decision-making have no inherent financial dimension to them, this matter of reward and recognition is a vital piece of the cultural jigsaw, and something we’ve written about previously.

Whatever structure or practices you use to celebrate and remunerate achievement in your organisation, they need to send the right message. When an employee receives plaudits or bonuses for certain behaviours or successes, it creates a self-fulfilling prophesy (for good or ill), encouraging others to follow suit. In a sales team, if one salesperson is able to call a colleague’s customer and close a deal that their teammate has actually been responsible for setting up, and then receive a bonus for doing so (while the person who did all the legwork gets nothing), you’re creating a monster.

Conversely, if an employee is openly recognised for speaking up about a problem, ultimately leading to a better way of doing things, that will encourage others to feel safe to raise concerns. This creates a culture of psychological safety and collective learning which has huge benefits for organisations and individuals alike.

Measuring the impact

Aside from looking in the mirror and also examining the behaviours of those around us, what else can we do as leaders to assess the success (or otherwise) of our culture-building endeavours? There is certainly a place for some kind of formal audit to discover which messages are seen and heard by our teams. How would they define the corporate culture? How do they see their place in it? Annual appraisals or staff surveys are one option, and using an anonymous format will encourage total honesty.  Informal one-to-ones are another useful dipstick for checking levels of cultural engagement. But remember, whatever method we use for assessing corporate culture, it’s vital that we’re open to finding out what isn’t working, as well as what is.

Culture isn’t made overnight, and undoubtably needs constant investment (primarily of time and attention), but the easiest and most effective way of doing so is repeated actions and behaviours from leaders.

As a leader, how do you walk the walk and talk the talk to enhance the culture of your organisation? I’d love to hear your experiences. Or, if you need help with getting your corporate culture back on-track, please drop me a line.

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