Change your company culture; change your future

By Steven Austin Stovall

How would your employees describe the atmosphere at your company? Would they say it’s casual and friendly? Or would they call it individualistic, full of gossip and backstabbing? Is it a place where employees are driven and striving to be their best? Or is it a lazy environment where people meet only the lowest expectations?

No matter how your employees might describe your company, ask yourself this: Do your managers view it the same way? Ideally, you don’t have a disconnect between your front–line folks and your management team.

Whether you call it corporate culture, working environment or simply “the way things are done around here,” every workplace has an organizational culture.

Organizational culture is a challenge to define. We know what it’s like to work in our company and we think we have a fairly good idea of what it’s like at other organizations.

But until you are in the midst of a particular culture, it’s really difficult to know for sure.

A commonsense definition of organizational culture is “the working climate of an organization that encompasses the unwritten rituals, common language and perpetuating stories of that organization.” The rituals include how new people are welcomed into the fold and how you prepare for events—all those things you do that make your company unique. A common language encompasses all those words and acronyms you and your employees use to communicate. And stories keep your past accomplishments and challenges alive and on the minds of your employees.

First, I want to help you define your current culture. Knowing your culture helps with recruiting, maintaining morale and managing your team. Later I’ll discuss thoughts on how to change your corporate culture. This is especially helpful if there has been a significant change in the management of your company or if feel your current culture is not facilitating the growth and productivity you expect.

Defining your current culture

Taking the pulse of your company is critical in understanding your culture. Try this exercise with your staff. Ask them each to select five words that describe the culture of your company. They should be free to use any words they feel are most descriptive of the environment. After they do that, have them answer questions such as the following. (It’s best if they do this individually and on paper. In group settings, one or two people often dominate the discussion and you may not get all the feedback you need from those who are quiet or shy.)

  • What do you feel gets rewarded in our company? Is it long hours or is it performance? Is it taking initiative or good planning?
  • Who are the ones who get recognized? Is it the person everybody likes or is it the person who quietly gets things done?
  • What do you think is most important in our company? Sales or operations? Marketing or manufacturing? Ranking in the industry or new product development? Attracting new customers or keeping existing ones?

Your employees should feel comfortable being candid about their responses. There are no right or wrong answers to the questions; you’re simply trying to understand how your workers view the working environment.

Of course, it’s also important for you to answer each of these questions. Go back and list five words you would use to describe the culture in your company. Then answer the questions above. How does your assessment compare with that of your staff? Is yours congruent with theirs or are there glaring discrepancies? If they are not in line with one another, determine why. Getting on the same page is vital not only in determining what kind of culture you have, but in enhancing it.

Where vision fits in

Now that you have a clearer picture of your culture, it’s time to start thinking about how your direction for the company fits within that culture. If your company has a stab–you–in–the–back kind of culture, but your vision includes genuine camaraderie to achieve goals, you’re not likely to meet your objectives. By the same token, if you have a relaxed culture, but your vision requires that everyone step up their productivity and take more initiative, you’ll face tough hurdles.

The main point to remember is that your vision encompasses not only the ultimate destination for your company, but also the values your business holds dear. If your manufacturing company has been and always will be a family–friendly place, then that is something you value. Similarly, if providing top–notch service is more important than another percentage point increase in sales, that again is a value. Allow your vision to integrate your values and then think about the organizational culture you are fostering.

Essentially, your vision is where you see the company going in the next few years.

Capture that vision on paper. Craft your ideas carefully and record them. If you see that the current culture will not achieve your vision, list the challenges you’ll face as you begin to change that culture. And be certain you understand all the ramifications of “doing things differently around here.”

Changing your workplace

Culture changes are never easy and don’t occur overnight. It’s a slow process requiring dedication on your part and a willingness to maintain focus—even when those around you are clearly not ready for change. Two ways you can foster change is through the language you use in your company and through storytelling.

You already have a language unique to your company. You have your own “manufacturing speak” that consists of acronyms, phrases and expressions that your staff routinely uses. This language is part of your culture. It defines how tasks get done and permeates meetings, informal gatherings, even service to customers. Changing aspects of this language is a vital part of how you change culture.

For example, altering something as mundane as the name you use for weekly meetings can have a powerful impact on culture and send a signal to workers that change is on its way. Think about the names of other things, like your company newsletter, weekly reports, even your procedures. Those labels are a valuable part of the language of your company and can be altered to better reflect the corporate culture you’d like to create.

Stories also help with culture change. Just as an anthropological culture has myths and folklore, your firm possesses stories that bespeak its culture. Before you dismiss this as frivolous, think about how you repeatedly tell the story of an employee who went above and beyond to assist a customer or what you tell an applicant in an interview about how you moved up through the ranks to your current position. These are stories that enrich the working environment and symbolize the ideals you promote for the company.

Stories facilitate change dramatically. They provide a method for sharing a deed or event that embodies not only your vision, but your company’s values, as well. As you identify and develop a new direction, find those stories that illustrate your vision and share them excitedly and often so that they will soon become integral to the new culture.

For example, assume you have had a somewhat lackadaisical culture. Your employees are reluctant to take initiative and they have to be asked repeatedly to complete projects. There is a general culture of indifference.

At an upcoming meeting, to start the change process, you might say: “I want to tell you a story about Mike. Mike used to run around here taking on every project imaginable. He was high energy, at every meeting and coming up with ideas that we are still using today.

None of us could keep up with him. He was recognized by the company on three different occasions for his hard work. Mike once said that if he wasn’t juggling at least eight major projects, he was bored. Then, something happened. He started to slow down.

It didn’t happen overnight, but he lost his drive. He lost his initiative. Those of you who remember Mike recall that he hated to leave here, but he found a job at a competitor.

Honestly, I miss those days. I miss seeing Mike and his stack of file folders for every project he was working on. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we’ve lost the drive and initiative we all once had, me included. How can we return to those days?”

This can lead to a productive discussion about where the company is today compared to where you have been in the past and the direction you would like to go. And it all begins with a story.

The nature of commitment

Securing staff commitment is essential for ensuring a successful culture change. Explaining that the changes they are experiencing will enhance performance and improve the bottom line helps employees embrace change. Show your workers how they will fit in with the changes—and how their contributions will enrich the company as it grows and develops.

Most people don’t readily take to change. The unfamiliar or unknown can cause employees to aggressively resist changes or simply stay quiet and hope the changes are short–lived. Regardless of how they deal with it, employees have to realize that the 21st century has brought with it continual change. Though that may be little consolation for some, knowing that more change is down the road can make transition a little smoother.

Unfortunately, even as you are in the process of change, you may be unable to see if the right changes are taking place. In fact, as changes are occurring, if you ask your team for words to describe the culture, they’ll probably say something like “chaotic,” “disorganized,” “difficult” or “annoying.”

That’s OK. Cultures in transition usually go through a rough patch before they improve. The climate seems chaotic and disorganized because people aren’t familiar with the new ways being implemented. As they acclimate, they’ll alter their views and start describing the culture as “progressive,” “on–target,” maybe even “wonderful.”

The key is to maintain your vision. Set your direction, think about stories and common language and garner support. Do so and you’ll create the culture you ultimately desire.

Steven Austin Stovall is a professor of management at Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio, and also is a trainer and management consultant. He can be reached at steven_stovall@wilmington.edu