Organizations rely on the strength of their culture to attract and retain top talent. But if your culture isn’t healthy, you could be doing more damage than good to your bottom line.
You can’t separate culture from the worst actions taken by your company. “Culture becomes decayed when you have a mismatch between your words and your actions,” says Angela R. Howard, organizational culture strategist at Angela R. Howard Consulting. “It’s easier to decay culture than to build it.”
Behaviors that don’t align with your culture will erode it. But if you’re intentional and deliberate in how you design culture, you can flip the script. “Healthy culture is just healthy behaviors that align back to your values,” Howard says, “and what you want your company to stand for.”
Here’s how to build and sustain a healthy culture at your organization.
Assess Cultural Maturity
Most of us think of culture as requiring the participation of groups of people, but an intentional culture starts with one person: the founder. “When you start organizing around something — a mission, a vision — you’re starting to build culture,” Howard says. Most organizations don’t start addressing culture until they begin adding people, and that can be a mistake.
By that point, culture is already in place regardless of whether anyone tried to curate it. This can lead to company leaders giving up on culture as a strategic driver of the business, and just letting it happen because “that’s just how it is.”
But your culture doesn’t have to be accidental: You can be intentional about building and sustaining a culture you’re proud of and that represents your business.
It starts with organizational identity. “What mark are you trying to leave on the world?” Howard says. “What’s that ripple effect you want to achieve?” Every company should regularly check on those foundational elements (mission, vision, and values) and assess where they are against where they thought they’d be.
Concentrate on Leadership
Leaders often work in a silo or as their own layer of the company. They don’t necessarily think about themselves as stewards of the culture, and that’s a huge missed opportunity for designing and sustaining healthy workplace culture.
Your leaders need to completely embrace and align on what you’re trying to achieve. “Explain to them their responsibilities as a leader,” Howard says. “HR isn’t responsible for preserving culture: you are.” Create the strongest leadership team possible that’s aligned on what you want to achieve and committed to getting there.
Managers can be your biggest champions or the greatest risk to your efforts. The goal is to convert leaders into change management champions as the organization works through its cultural transformation. All too often, the business doesn’t provide change agents with talking points or resources, leading to garbled messaging that can undermine your culture.
“Make sure every leader has talking points for every big communication,” Howard says, “and that leaders feel equipped to talk to their people.”
Talk to Employees — and Actually Listen
There’s often a disconnect between what the leadership team expects and what employees are actually experiencing, and that can create significant gaps in your cultural design. “Your culture lives within your employees, too,” Howard says. Ask them how they perceive the culture if you want a better understanding of how they’re interacting with and living culture on a daily basis.
Asking employees for their thoughts can be refreshing, both for your culture and for them. Employers are always the driving force. Do employees feel involved in the business and culture, or are they just a lever for getting results? “Everybody wants to feel like they’re a part of something,” Howard says. How are you making them feel like a part of the conversation?
Define different actions, tactics, and strategies to move the needle, especially in bringing culture into policies and programs. Culture should be part of performance reviews, competency models, and employee development programs. Build out your values into real-life actions and behaviors so that everyone understands what living the culture looks like.
When goal-setting, getting input from employees can inform the business strategy because they’re the ones doing most of the work. “It’s more like a two-way partnership,” Howard says. “That’s what you should be aiming for.”
Based on employee input, fill the gaps between your present-day culture and what you thought it was — or want it to be. There will be things that employees ask for that you may not be able to do (you can’t compromise on your mission, vision, and values, for example). But even in those cases, Howard says, it’s important to be transparent with employees and to explain your decisions.
A Road Map With No Final Destination
Culture is ongoing: It’s either reinforced or eroded by the actions of each employee, every day. You’ll never really arrive at the “end” of the process, and that makes ownership of cultural outcomes even more important.
Company leaders really need to be the driver of culture. They have to model it, monitor it, and engage employees in preserving it.
External consultants, such as Howard, can help identify where you want to go, what you have now, and how to fill the gaps. But consultants can’t take you all the way. “My goal is to make this sustainable,” Howard says. “Building culture is really intentional and iterative over time.”