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What is workplace culture?

In our previous article “Is workplace culture worth the time and effort?” we posed a critical question that leaders should be asking themselves: is creating the workplace culture you want worth the time, cost, and effort it takes? Or would you be better to put all those resources into driving results?

As you will have read, the evidence is clear: managers who decide to focus on results and let culture sort itself out, are going to face an ongoing and unwinnable struggle – unless they are satisfied with extremely short-term results. If that is you, you are going to hate this article and most of what we write. Save yourself the agony and click away now!

Our position, backed by the evidence, is that the best way to drive results is by building an exceptional workplace culture. There should be no question of choosing results OR culture. The two are irrevocably interlinked and great cultures make results effortless and sustainable.

Assuming this aligns with your view of the workplace and that you are still reading, that leaves some logical next questions: 

  • What can you do about the workplace culture? 
  • How do you go about changing the one you have? 
  • I have tried changing the culture, but it is really hard! How do I overcome entrenched habits and resistance?

Patience grasshopper! Before we can answer that, we need to examine what workplace culture actually is. We can’t fix something that we don’t fully understand.

Let’s dispel some illusions about workplace culture. It is not: 

  • Big decisions made by boards and senior leadership teams
  • Policies and processes
  • What is written on a plaque in the lobby, printed in a nice brochure or emblazoned in gold lettering in the front cover of the annual report or strategic plan
  • A marketing campaign

To help answer that, let’s look at a more technical definition of culture. Human Synergistics International whose psychometric tools we use to help organisations understand their culture,  define organisational culture as being the shared norms and expectations that govern the way people approach their work and interact with each other.

This is consistent with our definition – it is the expectations that guide people in making those everyday choices and decisions we discussed earlier.

It also highlights the key to reshaping culture. To illustrate, consider this scenario. A new person comes to work at your organisation. During recruitment you may have even identified that they are the sort of person that you want on the team, that they will have a positive impact and possibly start leading the culture where you want it to go. But, in those early and formative weeks and months, they are motivated to fit in and be accepted. They look around for cues about how to behave – they see what other people do, they observe what is encouraged and rewarded, and what is discouraged and punished. 

These may be formal rewards and punishments – but they are more likely to be ‘social’ incentives like approval or being excluded. The new team member also observes how managers react to things – perhaps there were grand statements made about expectations during induction or there is a list of values on the wall in every room. But, if the manager behaves in a way that is inconsistent with training, values or other stated expectations, which version is real. For example:

  • Induction had a whole session focusing on uncompromising standards (quality, safety, performance, etc) but there are people who slack off and no-one does anything about it
  • One of the organisation’s values is Respect – but some team members treat others poorly and no-one deals with it because it is too awkward or for fear of the reaction
  • Everyone was trained in innovation but no-one listens when people have new ideas or suggestions

In each of these situations, the message is clear: what you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

Most new team members in this situation will conform with the way things actually happen – and the culture perpetuates. Instead of being the solution to the workplace culture issues, they become part of the problem.

So – the first step in reshaping your workplace culture? Get very clear on your expectations around workplace behaviour and performance – and start working on those expectations being reflected in every day choices and decisions.

In the next article, we will look at Authenticity (aligning the things you do, say, think and decide with the workplace culture you want), how culture works as self reinforcing cycle, and the ways in which you can use expectations to interrupt that cycle.

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