The Surprising Need to Clarify Culture Management

Important Clarifications for Effective Culture Management

Alfa. Bravo. Charlie. The phonetic alphabet was adopted in 1956 to avoid confusion when spelling out words over radio and telephone. With background noise and imperfect technology, an “n” can sound like “m” and “f” can sound like “s,” but “November” is clearly not “Mike” and “Foxtrot” is clearly not “Sierra.” Sure, there might be some effort to use this approach, but the reward is precision that saves time and prevents mistakes.

Managing an organization’s culture has a similar problem. We may be saying one thing, but others hear a different thing, and the results are wasted time and costly mistakes. This was one surprising discovery from the listening tour that CultureIQ has been on since last year. We asked CEOs and HR executives questions to better understand why companies often struggle with the measurement, interpretation, and development of their culture. We have come to realize that the most prevalent terms in our culture conversations are often misheard – not because their sounds are fuzzy, but because their meanings are fuzzy. Here are five clarifications that will vastly improve how companies are managing culture. 

Culture, Not Engagement

Today, culture often ends up sounding like employee engagement or satisfaction accompanied with a mindset that culture can generically be good or bad. Companies that have had leaders harass employees, for example, have been labelled as having “toxic cultures.” The opposite labelling occurs when companies want an “engaging culture” by providing perks such as ping pong tables in the break room and frequent social events. Culture is about how work gets done and so there is more to consider than just how employees are treated.

Culture is the system of shared beliefs and behaviors that develops over time to shape how people work together. Some things are so engrained that everyone just falls into doing things a certain way. What makes a culture good or bad is the match between what the company needs from its culture and what it actually gets from its culture. For example, satisfying the customer above all else seems good, but it might be bad if you need employees to focus more on speed and standardization. Likewise, setting high standards for efficiency seem good, but it might be bad if it prevents experimentation with new ideas. When we say you need to foster the right culture, we mean more than creating motivation – we mean fostering common understanding and good habits for your strategy.

Actioning, Not Action Planning

We use the term “actioning” to mean the full process of taking action to cultivate purposeful culture. That process starts with the executive team prioritizing opportunities and identifying company-wide objectives. Next, the Culture Action Team analyzes root causes, identifies desired behaviors, evaluates potential approaches, determines a plan of action and engages all levels of the organization in implementing the plan. Actioning continues through monitoring and adjusting the plan on an ongoing basis to maintain momentum. However, this process is often heard as “action planning” even though that can bring to mind a more localized process of setting up a goals and activities, one that has different managers working on separate, uncoordinated actions with little holistic orchestration. Action planning usually has the IT function consider what will make IT better. This is a worthy goal, but it is not the same as asking what the IT function could do to make the company better. IT and other functions might improve performance if employees are more engaged (i.e., just try harder), but it makes more sense to have them act toward a shared, specific business goal. If the target is to have 15 customers contracted on the new service offering, then all the organization’s segments should coordinate actions to that end.

Outcome, Not Process

Many companies use an annual survey so that employee feedback leads to better performance and a better workplace, so we have been asking leaders what those efforts yielded. Most of the answers, however, are about the process instead of the outcome. It’s obvious that there were focus groups held and action plans created. Maybe survey scores even improved. But was there an improvement in organizational performance? Revenue? Profit? Was there a comparison between dollars invested in the process and the dollars created as an outcome? Too often there is an assumption that if survey scores have increased, then there must be some gain. For businesses that want to actually see results, there needs to be a focus on outcomes. In CultureIQ parlance, “what is your why?” The survey content needs to be tailored to the desired outcomes, and the post-survey actions need to be tailored to the desired outcomes. It’s not about hours spent action planning, but about the end result.

Involve, Not Command

There is a common belief that changing behavior in an organization takes a long time because people resist change. Yet, the majority of employees say that they would be willing to change their behavior for an organization. The conflicting thoughts can be explained easily. We don’t resist change so much as we resist being changed. The best way to have employees commit to change is to involve them in the planning, execution, and evaluation of that change. When action plans are created by managers isolated in their offices, the employees one or two levels below those managers think about reasons why the plans will not work. In contrast, when employees have input into what the changes will be and how they will be rolled out, they are personally invested in the success. Even large groups of employees can contribute to changes by nominating some of their peers as representatives on an action team that works with management. This form of collaborative involvement builds trust, expands social networks, and improves feedback. Any slowdown that is necessary initially is outweighed by the speed of adoption later on.

Culture doesn’t need to be a fuzzy concept. The rhetoric you use to champion culture management efforts within your organization matters. It’s how buy-in gets created, how change is championed, and how you articulate impact of the work. Are your teams all hearing the right intent for your culture management work this year?

About the Author

Paul Mastrangelo

Principal Strategist

Paul Mastrangelo, Ph.D., is an author, executive speaker and C-suite sherpa with 25+ years’ experience in organization development, HR research, and leadership education. He is Principal Strategist for CultureIQ, an award-winning culture management firm that he describes as a “50-year-old startup company” (legacy CEB, Genesee Survey Services).