By Sudhir Singh
There is a biblical verse that, to me, describes how culture is defined in most organizations: “So God created humankind in His own image.” The CEOs and leadership teams want the culture in their organizations to mirror their own values and preferences. They believe whatever made them successful will help their organizations succeed as well. There is also comfort and safety in the familiar. They have a specific definition of an ideal culture and want it to be permanently embedded in the organization.
It is time to look at the validity of this approach and the importance of permanency of culture in the organization.
Let us start with establishing a common definition of culture and the purpose it serves so we stay together throughout the discussion. In the context of a commercial organization, culture is best defined as the set of shared attitudes, values, behaviors and practices that are consistently displayed by the majority that characterizes an organization.
Many organizations are deeply passionate about their culture and invest in it substantially to build and nurture. The real test of any investment is in the returns it brings to the business; it is just overhead if it does not. The same logic applies to culture. The culture can only be termed as meaningful and productive if it helps the organization achieve its business objectives.
At the start of an organization, it is natural for the objectives and culture to be defined around the founders’ vision, values and preferences. As the organization grows past the initial stages and gains clarity around the stakeholders’ expectations, it must establish the strategic business objectives and revise them at regular intervals. The culture must be reviewed and tweaked, as needed, to ensure it helps the strategic business objectives in the most efficient way.
Stakeholders’ expectations are right at the center of this process to define the strategic business objectives and the best culture for the organization. As a first step, it is important for an organization to understand and prioritize the stakeholders and their expectations. It must cover all the stakeholders listed below (intentionally arranged in alphabetical order to emphasize that all stakeholders must be considered at an even keel):
• Business partners.
• Employees and associates.
• Founders and leadership team.
• Law and government regulations.
Once we have the strategic objectives worked out, the second step is to look at the attitudes, values, behaviors and practices required to achieve these objectives in the most effective and efficient manner. The set that comes out of this exercise is the culture the organization must work toward building.
To ensure understanding and adoption, cultural expectations must be documented in a two-tiered form, defining the desired attitudes and values at one level and translating them into observable behaviors and practices at another. This two-tiered approach makes it easy for employees to align to the expectations and for their leaders to coach them, as needed. For example, if the attitude and value is curiosity, one of the observable behaviors could be asking questions.
The strategic objectives may apply differently to various functions and teams in the organization. Being specific about how they vary across sections will help the organization identify whether the culture needs to be altered to ensure success in these sections. Essentially, we are proactively crafting the microcultures. No organization of a reasonable size can have just one macroculture; microcultures are inevitable. Being upfront and proactive about microcultures helps the organization have better control over its macroculture.
Imagine an organization that has its overall strategic objectives and cultural expectations defined at a macro level, and then also has the strategic objectives and cultural expectations clearly stated for each functional group and geography. It is not difficult to visualize, for example, that the strategic objectives and cultural expectations for the sales team will look hugely different from the strategic objectives and cultural expectations for the production department. Establishing this clarity will not only help employees perform better, but also identify and rectify conflict zones proactively.
As mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a permanent culture. It is unproductive to believe that an organization’s culture is a constant and must not change. On the contrary, it must change at the pace that business objectives change. The culture must be reviewed and revised each time the strategic objectives are altered. Culture should never be looked at in isolation, detached from the strategic objectives.
Regular culture audits are necessary to ensure alignment. Detailing out observable behaviors and practices makes the audits objective and actionable. The best strategy is to build audits into regular performance evaluations and feedback processes. Integration with these mainstream processes brings in a better sense of seriousness without adding to the overhead. The connection with rewards is created automatically, so additional mechanisms need not be fabricated.
Awards such as “Culture Champion” and “Values Role Model” are mostly counterproductive because they make the majority feel that the values and the culture of the organization are arduous to follow and only a few can do so. The culture must come across as the most natural thing that everybody follows without much effort. Should the efforts be needed, they should be easily available and accessible to people through training and coaching. Stories are important vehicles and banners for culture in an organization. They help people understand finer nuances that are difficult to include in formal definitions. Active effort toward curating impactful stories goes a long way in nurturing the culture.
Culture is not about servicing top-down expectations or bottom-up aspirations, but if done right, it will serve both in addition to becoming the fuel for business success, which is its prime objective. With the stakeholders’ expectations consciously placed at the heart of the organization’s strategic objectives and culture, success and delight for everyone is guaranteed.
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This content was originally published by Forbes Magazine. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By Forbes Magazine