September 28, 2022

Knowing Your Culture Before Changing It

Over the past week, I’ve had some really insightful conversations with some folks in my network around culture – all of them wanted to discuss how to setup a great culture and what can be done to support it, and it got me thinking about how we can step back and first understand what our actual culture currently “is” and then accordingly take steps to fix, improve, change or maintain it instead of emulating what other companies have already put in the work to do and seen results. While I love the emphasis people are placing on culture, my concern is that not everyone understands the hard, daily work it takes to maintain and live up to what you identify as your workplace culture.

I shared these ideas below with the people I spoke to and I’m putting them down here so that anyone (HR teams leaders, managers, CEOs, COOs, employees, newbies) can themselves ascertain what their current company culture is by running through a simple list of questions. These aren’t exhaustive and they only represent one way to review what’s happening, but it helps breakdown what culture “is” to what culture “looks like in action”. All views are purely mine!

Who do you hire, fire and promote?

These are the most obvious management actions that employees talk about, because they are the most visible but often are probably not explained very well, allowing people to make assumptions on the decisions taken. Leaders have the chance to both explain and send a very strong message about the values that are important based on the actions they reward, recognize or penalize.

What are your culture stories?

More than core values, culture stories tell people what it’s like working somewhere. Culture stories are the stories employees share around certain events – every company has a founding story (how a founder started the company, maybe bootstrapped, or after quitting a corporate role), a story of triumph over adversity (how a company survived a recession, or didn’t), company actions (layoffs, shutdowns) – the way the company and founders behaved in those instances are what employees will talk about, and transmit the “oral history” of an organization – which can take on a life of its own! You can try and plan an official orientation and onboarding all you want – what people discuss over chai or lunch will play a much larger role in comforting or scaring new employees!

What benefits do you/your company give your employees?

The perks and benefits a company provides its employees indicate to what extent they really understand what is important to their workers. Providing flex time work arrangements, childcare support, education assistance, or even free massages, lunch, after-hours football all talk about how well the companies know their employees and understand what they need to be fulfilled in the workplace. There’s no right or wrong here, it simply is an indicator of what the company believes, and can be used to measure up against what employees really want.

How do you take the hard decisions?

What do you tell people when hard decisions have to be taken? The actions taken during sexual harassment complaints, instances of fraud or embezzlement, physical violence, security breaches or during not-so-clear instances of bullying, verbal harassment, intimidation send very clear messages on what sort of behaviour is acceptable at a company – these are learning and teachable moments, and leaders should not take them lightly. The kind of communication shared to all employees (because, let’s face it, all information doesn’t always stay confidential and employees somehow come to know), choosing whether or not to address these issues (you ALWAYS address the issue, by the way – not addressing it isn’t an option!) send clear messages on whether or not leaders embody a culture of humility, learning, acceptance and act in majority’s best interests, or whether they sweep things under the rug, refuse to share information and protect an employee at the cost of culture.

How do you/your company terminate an employee? How do you explain to the larger staff when someone leaves? How do you react (if you’re a manager) when someone tells you they want to quit?

People will inevitably know the reasons for other employees leaving – but they are waiting to hear what the leaders have to say. Will company leaders blame outgoing employees? Will they gloss it over and say something like “for better prospects”? Are employees asked to leave immediately? Are employees not allowed to interact during notice periods? Unless there is significant instance of fraud or malpractice, isolating employees or taking very harsh action also sends a message on how dispensable employees can end up to the organization ultimately, possibly creating fear and insecurity among current staff!

What is your business communication like? What do people say in emails, and how do they say it?

Employees today spend almost 70% of their days engaging in email conversations – the result is that a lot of how we interact with people gets determined by what they take out of that one three-or-four line email, which is unfortunate because a lot of communication nuances get lost in emails. Do your managers insist on being cc’ed or bcc’ed in all emails – do they trust teams to handle issues without being dragged in? Do emails come across as harsh, passive aggressive? Do people say things in emails that they would never say face to face? Are people complaining in emails and listing why something didn’t happen instead of providing solutions? Are people talking in emails instead of listing down summaries and action points? Are people not talking face-to-face? Emails are great but can’t substitute articulate discussion and debate – by hiding behind emails, we limit the levels of trust we can build in our teams to challenge, dissent or collaborate.

How do managers react when an employee’s work isn’t up to the mark?

Performance management is a great place to view culture in action – does poor performance get penalized or coached for improvement? Do managers believe in continuous feedback and improvement or only speak up during year-end appraisals? Is only the manager’s input considered or are there multiple parameters to evaluate performance? Do managers ignore poor behaviour and attitude if the employee is delivering results? The approach to evaluating performance and whether organizations take holistic or very focused views sheds light on how companies view employees – as whole individuals who bring more to the table than just achieving numbers, or as people who have to complete a very specific task that drives revenue.

How do decisions get made? Empowerment or bureaucracy?

Multiple layers of approval or a decentralized, clear process? Many employers think they have an “empowered” culture but in reality are afraid to let go of decision-making power. This boils down to trust, confidence and willingness to let people make mistakes. How decisions get made affects how people see themselves and their abilities, the faith their managers place in them, and the value they add as a strategic part of the org instead of an executor of decisions pre-made.

There’s no right or wrong answers to these. But you may realise as you get honest feedback from others on these questions and as you yourself try and answer some of these, that the culture isn’t table-tennis and pizza breaks or the posters on the walls listing down vision-mission-values statements. The true values come out in the above questions, the true culture is what people SEE leaders do rather than listen to them SAYING what they want to do. If people don’t feel that what they are seeing matches with what you are saying, then the values posters will remain just those – pieces of paper stuck up on a wall. Once you answer these questions, decide what’s working for you and what you are really proud of – and for what’s not, make a plan to change or fix those aspects specifically. “Culture” is a giant, amorphous, beast of a thing – but breaking it down into actions you
can control on a daily basis actually embeds it into a company’s way of working than trying to fit it on from the outside.

Today, people come and go for the culture. There’s no two ways about it – money, perks and benefits are available a dime-a-dozen. Recognizing your culture as your competitive advantage sooner rather than later is a key factor that will differentiate companies that become great places to work in today’s economy!

This is why even poor performing cultures eat the best planned strategies for breakfast!

About the Author:

Ria Shroff Desai is an HR professional who is passionate about connecting people with the resources they need, to do their work most efficiently. She has previously worked at Teach for India, Mumbai. She has been recognized as one of India’s 40under40 HR professionals in 2019 by Jombay.

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