Great Cultures Are Made, Not BornFeatured

What is Culture?

Have you ever walked into a building or a store and instantly had a strong, gut-level reaction - positive or negative - to what your six senses (yes, you have six if we include your intuition) were telling you? Or, perhaps you started working somewhere new and were surprised that eight signature approvals were required for you to purchase an office chair? In both of these examples, you were experiencing different elements of org culture.

Culture in organizations basically means “the way things are done around here.” They are your organization’s unique mix of explicit (think employee handbook) and implicit (think everyone eats lunch at their desk) rules. You might assume that “the rules” were somehow derived from the organization’s stated values, mission, or strategy.

That’s often the case when an organization is newly formed and for the first few years of its lifecycle. And the life experiences, personality, and preferences of the organization’s founder also shape its culture significantly. For example, if the founder is a wealthy, white, hetero, cis male engineer who attended MIT, you can bet that the culture of the company will be different from a company founded by a queer Latina social worker who worked her way through community college while working full time and raising 2 kids as a single mom over 7 years. In other words, a leader’s Identity also impacts company culture.

Maybe you happen to love your organization’s culture, but studies suggest that most of us will at some point find our organization’s culture wanting in a number of key areas. Perhaps when you were a new hire fresh out of college you appreciated the frequent team social outings after hours that you and your single, child-free team members were expected to attend with the boss. Fast forward a few years and perhaps you and your partner have just welcomed your first child together. Suddenly, the idea of extending your workday to spend your evenings with co-workers instead of at home may seem less appealing. You may even come to resent the fact that by skipping some of these outings you are viewed as “less committed” to the organization and are passed over for a promotion in favor of one of your co-workers who always attends. If this sounds familiar, or you’ve identified some other elements of organizational culture you think could use a refresh (or a reboot), I invite you to read on.

How do you build great cultures?

Start with identifying your organizational “Why.” As in, “Why do we exist?” This is critically important because without anchoring to your why, you risk reverting to your teenage instincts - trying to build a culture just like Company XYZ or based on the latest trends for employee perks. Don’t try to be like Google - that spot is already taken. The world is waiting for your organization to emerge as its most unique and impactful self.

Once you are firmly anchored in your Why, define your organizational values. At their best, values function like brightly lit, flashing signposts helping to steer your culture in the right direction as your organization grows. If you want employees in an organization to be empowered to make some decisions without direct guidance from a supervisor, clarification around values through explicit communication and sharing stories that illustrate values in action is critical. No matter how comprehensive your policy manual is, you can’t anticipate every scenario that might emerge.

One of my first jobs was working alternately as a cashier and salesperson at Nordstrom. At the time, Nordstrom had developed a reputation of providing superior customer service compared to other retailers, as evidenced by its lenient returns policy. The organizational values were made very explicit and clear to all employees and were reinforced by the regular sharing of stories about salespeople doing extraordinary deeds for their customers. I remember one such story vividly - about a customer who brought their used car tire into a Nordstrom store and asked to return it. The salesperson accepted the tire and gave the customer a $100 refund, even though Nordstrom never has sold automobile tires! Whether this ever really happened or not isn’t the point. The point is that my manager made an effort to share and repeat this story often so that on her days off, everyone working for her was clear that we were to accept any item for return.

After defining your values, you want to identify the mindsets, skill sets and behaviors that align with them. This step increases the odds that people in the org will manifest your values through their behaviors on a daily basis. Values that are etched into a plaque and hung on a wall in your lobby or artfully displayed on a landing page on your website will do little for your culture. People have to act on them and observe other people, particularly organizational leaders, demonstrate them consistently in order for values to function as cultural beacons.

One of the more common disconnects between stated organizational values and actual leadership behaviors is around being a “learning organization” and/or “commitment to continuous improvement.” Time and time again, I have seen and heard of instances where well-intentioned employees will privately offer insightful feedback and helpful suggestions to their leaders only to be completely ignored or even ridiculed for it publicly. Needless to say, when top leaders at these organizations espouse these values, it tends to ring hollow and breeds deep cynicism among employees instead of engagement.

How do you change a culture?

Keep in mind that when it comes to transforming organizational culture, it’s not just people’s behaviors that must change, but their mindsets and skillsets must shift, also. Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement may both be required for people in the organization to succeed in integrating new ways of thinking and new skills. Often, people have to unlearn what they may have been previously taught or what they observed from their role models, first. I like to use the analogy that for most of the 20th century, people entering the workforce were taught to swim, so they grew fins and tails. Now, we’re asking them in many cases to fly before they can grow feathers or wings. It’s no wonder they flounder!

Not everyone willingly opts-in to the “unlearn in order to learn new things” concept. Examples can be found in many organizations today when we observe how people respond to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Whether it’s unconscious bias training, interventions to stop microaggressions, or accommodating more flexible work schedules, many leaders are struggling to let go of deeply held assumptions that no longer serve them or their team members well. Part of successfully navigating any organizational change, especially culture change aligned with the future of work, requires us to acknowledge that some people may leave the organization or stay, but passively disengage.

Sometimes, new leadership at the top will be required for a culture to shift significantly. However, leadership change is often insufficient to produce lasting change, especially when the organization is very large and/or mature. Think of it like trying to rotate an aircraft carrier in the ocean 180 degrees. It may take the captain only ten seconds to relay an order for the ship to turn, but it will take at least 90 minutes, or 540x longer, for the ship to fully execute the turn.

Final thoughts

At Kadabra, we often assess organizational cultures according to a model called BRAVE Cultures™ originally developed by Johanna Lyman. BRAVE cultures are purpose-driven, wildly innovative, fiercely inclusive, and committed to conscious communication. Ultimately, they require brave leaders to grow and thrive - there is little room for resting on your laurels or tolerating the status quo in a BRAVE culture because you are scared to rock the boat. A certain amount of boat rocking goes hand in hand with growing and sustaining a BRAVE culture. And the rewards for doing so can be great, too.

joynicolesmith's profile thumbnail
@WendyRyan, I enjoyed reading your publication. There were many points which resonated. Specifically, stories being used as tools to communicate the values of an organization. In addition, you bring attention to "unlearning in order to learn new things" can often be a challenge in many organizations. However, with the future of work in our midst there will be a variety of responses. Thank you for sharing!
WendyRyan's profile thumbnail
I'm glad my article resonated with you, @joynicolesmith. Thanks for taking time to share! :)
tutti's profile thumbnail
Great article Wendy! These are things I think about a lot having spent time both on the inside trying to change culture at both a startup level and within large tech companies (when my day job was leading design teams), and now as a coach / consultant to CEOs who want culture change but also many other things (profit/success/impact). Any interest in chatting / connecting over kindred values?
WendyRyan's profile thumbnail
Definitely, @tutti - just sent you a DM.
JaneHoffacker's profile thumbnail
Great article @WendyRyan! Thanks for sharing your insights.
WendyRyan's profile thumbnail
Glad you enjoyed it, @JaneHoffacker!