One of my worst work experiences happened many years ago at a company holiday party. A celebration that was supposed to be a fun and festive display of my then-company’s “culture” turned out to be the antithesis of holiday cheer.
I was working in HR for a retail company and our yearly holiday party happened during a day in December. A catered lunch and award ceremony ended with the CEO thanking us and giving the entire company the rest of the day off. We were ecstatic — until my boss approached me and the other HR directors and said: “Somebody has to clean this up. That is what HR is supposed to do.”
The request contradicted everything the CEO had said in his closing remarks about teamwork, transparency and valuing employees. Instead of feeling valued and part of a team ourselves, the four of us were responsible for cleaning up after a 300-person lunch without any warning or any opportunity to strategize a way to handle the cleanup. Rather than leaving early that day, my colleagues and I spent five hours cleaning the dishes, putting away food and rearranging furniture.
The VP of HR — who assigned us the task — did not stick around to help.
I learned in that moment that company culture talk must align with company culture walk. Managers can easily talk about how they’re going to treat their employees, but that won’t become the culture unless they act on it.
What is culture, anyway?
When most people talk about culture, they usually refer to things like regular happy hours, an unlimited vacation policy or the pet-friendly office environment.
But a culture is much more than the sum of these “fun” parts. It also encompasses things like who is allowed to work from home and when (or where) everyone eats lunch. Culture is in the written rules (formal hours of operation) as much as the unwritten ones (strolling into the office every day past 10 a.m. is frowned upon). It is easily thought of as “how we get things done here.”
Gallup research suggests a positive company culture can help drive employee engagement — which in turn drives productivity and decreased retention. But for a positive culture to persist, company leaders have to not only create a vision for that culture, but also ensure it translates into the actions of everyone at the company. Even one employee or manager can give rise to bad culture habits that quickly derail the original intentions of senior leadership.
Here’s how to create a cultural framework that allows both the written and unwritten rules to flourish, overcome cultural hurdles if they arise and keep your employees happy and engaged.
A Good Culture In Theory Needs Consistent Execution
Creating an effective culture requires consistency: The way leadership defines culture should align with the way that culture is carried out — and managers are most often the culture purveyors. Because they interact with each individual on their team day to day, they strongly affect how employees experience culture.
Believe it or not, authenticity and genuineness were cultural pillars for the company I described earlier. But not everyone followed these tenets all the time — and especially not my boss, an executive. While she was kind and supportive in public, in one-on-one meetings she berated me and my colleagues; she even called some people in the middle of the night to yell at them. While the leadership team’s goal was to create an environment where employees felt supported and able to do good work, her inconsistency produced the opposite effect on our group.
To combat this kind of inconsistency, give managers training and support around company culture. In the management trainings I lead today, communicating culture is a major focus to ensure managers have set guidelines and expectations. This way, they know their role in keeping our culture on track.
Mistakes Happen — Just Make Sure You Can Fix Them
Despite the leadership team’s best efforts, bad culture habits or attitudes do crop up.
For example, a few years ago at Cornerstone we participated in a company-wide event called Walktober. Employees divided themselves into teams and tracked their steps throughout the month to promote health and wellness across the organization. As a leadership team, we couldn’t see a downside. But later, an employee approached me to say that while he liked Walktober and had wanted to participate, he’d struggled to find a team.
“I’m an older guy, I’m a little out of shape,” he told me. “I started to get the feeling people saw this as a competition — and saw me as a liability.”
In the face of a cultural miss like this, leadership needs to face the problem head-on and create a new path forward. Rather than interpret this feedback as an isolated incident, our leadership team discussed the culture missteps we’d made in our effort: It was clear in hindsight how we had unintentionally incited a competition. In the future, we agreed to look for more inclusive goals for the company to commit to and to continue to act on this kind of employee feedback.
Keep in mind that the company is not going to reach a cultural “finish line.” Building culture never ends. In fact, when you stop focusing on it, good companies can die. Instead, it’s a continuous cycle of setting goals, training, communicating to managers and employees and adjusting if a bad culture habit emerges.