No matter how much the landscape of work changes, an inclusive workplace culture will always be vital. Workplace culture is defined by a combination of things from the values of employees to the ways that leaders shape actions to run the business. Although culture is often intangible, it’s a core tool to empower employees to be productive and inspired.
What does it take to have a company culture that makes people want to come in to work and feel proud of? It turns out that, even more than the employees that a company attracts, leaders can play a core role in shaping culture for the better. “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture,” the late MIT Professor Ed Schein once opined. Schein understood what many leaders get wrong: Investing time, effort, and resources into the culture is an important priority and use of time for leaders. Doing so actually scales their ability to drive impact and help employees do their best work.
Company culture is a core part of both attracting andretaining top talent. Glassdoor found that 77% of job seekers evaluate a company’s culture before interviewing, and research from MIT Professor Donald Sull showed that the No. 1 driver of attrition of employees was a toxic culture. A report by SHRM found that one in five Americans left a job due to poor company culture within the last year, and replacing an employee costs up to 150% of their annual salary. Conversely, Forbes reported that when companies are creating a workplace where employees are valued and seen as leaders, the companies will see four times the revenue growth.
Investing in company culture is good for employee morale and the company’s bottom line.
With 15 years of experience leading teams and advising leaders on their culture across the for-profit and nonprofit space, as a consultant, I’ve seen firsthand how leaders who commit to small and consistent changes seed larger cultural shifts in their organization. More specifically, there are key actions leaders can take, when done consistently and continuously, to evolve the culture of the organization to meet the emergent strategic needs of the business.
If you’re a leader who wants to positively impact your organization’s culture, here are principles to keep in mind.
CULTURE IS A VERB, NOT A NOUN
A starting place is to treat culture as a verb, not a noun. Something that comes to life through actions. This is why leaders must continuously invest in and manage the culture of their organization.
EVERYONE HAS A ROLE
Everyone has a role to play in deliberately cultivating a positive company culture. One of the leaders overseeing growth for a medical nonprofit organization wanted to create new and innovative programs that delivered more value for its members, who were all nurses. To reflect their desired cultural value of innovation, the leader encouraged employees and managers to carve out time, resources, and space for employees to think creatively to come up with ideas for new solutions.
Another example is Salesforce, where giving back is such a core element of the values and culture of the organization that it’s part of their business model, and they foster the behavior of giving back by encouraging employees to take time off to volunteer in the local communities, and actually providing them with volunteering time off (VTO) to go and do this. By integrating this into their actual processes and systems, the value of giving back comes to life.
EMBODY THE CHANGE
Culture isn’t created overnight, but it’s shaped every day. If leaders want to see a change in culture, they have to be the first ones to embody the espoused culture. Part of the reason is that employees look to leaders and their decisions as a reflection of the culture. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made significant strides in changing the culture of Microsoft as an organization, starting with a core belief of having a “growth mindset.” Satya often talked about being a “learn it all” versus a “know it all” and embraced this core value after a misstep early in his tenure where he didn’t acknowledge the gender pay gap during a Grace Hopper panel.
Instead of shying away from the topic, he apologized and said he would listen and learn, a promise that he kept his word on by returning the year after. His story is a reminder that embodying a positive company culture isn’t about showing up perfectly. Instead, it’s about being willing to listen and learn from employees and committing to taking action if you make a mistake.
BRING CULTURE INTO WORKFLOWS
To change culture, you have to change the way people work with each other. This is reflected in both the macro and the micro moments from company-wide meetings and company onboarding to individual manager 1:1s, all of which are shaped by team dynamics and company values.
For example, one organization leader saw an opportunity to really shift the culture to be rooted in data-driven decision making. To do this, the leader encouraged meetings to be focused on employee projects aligned with strategic objectives rather than strictly being report-outs.
The first few months of meetings had road bumps but, over time, teams were able to make more strategic decisions and explain their reasoning with data. With a clear “north star,” employees were also more effective in using data to communicate the impact of their work during performance evaluations, which made them feel more valued.
CELEBRATE EMPLOYEES WHO GET IT
Culture comes alive when employees see the behaviors being modeled and rewarded. For example, if a media company’s culture centers on experimentation and new ideas, employees have to feel comfortable trying new form factors without fear of failure. If this mission isn’t reflected in how they’re evaluated or leadership, there’s a sense of disconnection for employees.
A company I work with was in this exact predicament, and they turned things around by encouraging employees to conduct experiments and share lessons learned even if they weren’t successful. The internal communications team even released a series of communications recognizing employees who ran new experiments, regardless of whether they succeeded or failed. These stories were shown in digital communications, as well as shown during the companywide meetings, further demonstrating the types of behaviors were in fact rewarded.
Evolving company culture requires time, work, and consistency, and leaders play a key role in this. Commit to embodying the culture over time, but ensure that employees are along for the journey. When you find ways to make culture a team sport, everyone can play a role in ensuring the culture evolves.
In the words of author James Clear, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” Similarly, culture change happens when people take small actions that over time, move the organization from there, toward the type of organization they wish to become.
Loading the player...
Najla Al-Midfa on fueling innovation and entrepreneurial spirit