What’s Culture Got to Do With It?

The purpose of creating a defined workplace culture is to express an organization’s values, goals, and beliefs and to guide daily activities toward achieving these goals effectively in a way that benefits both the workers and the organization as a whole. Where strategies are designed to create goals and define the necessary steps to get there, culture informs the execution of the strategy, making it one of the most essential components of a successful organization. Organizational nirvana is where strategy and culture come together.

How Culture Impacts Business Outcomes

Organizational culture is driven by top leadership, sustained by middle leadership, and engaged in by the ranks. It includes everything from the company’s core beliefs, alignment of business processes, talent practices, leadership behaviors, people process and reward systems for every employee. It is a key driver of engagement as it defines how people will feel about coming to work every day and carrying out their daily tasks. Efforts to improve engagement, retention and employment brand require transformations in culture as no feel-good pizza party or ping-pong table can ever replace meaningful changes.

Transformations of culture are not easy to execute, but the efforts are worth it. Organizations that get it right perform better than their competitors and enjoy a healthier bottom line, too. Forbes compiled a list of business outcomes that are directly impacted by strong workplace cultures. A few of the more pressing results include:

  • Reduced Absenteeism. Aside from planned vacations to get a break from the grind, people who are happy at work and engaged in their position take fewer sick days that aren’t tied to illness. 
  • Lower Turnover Rates. The more specialized the position or narrow the industry, the more costly it is to replace the departed. Even easy-to-fill vacancies can be expensive as unskilled positions already experience high turnover rates. 
  • Fewer Managers. When people are trusted to do their jobs and empowered with the skills they need to excel, they tend to require less supervision as they become more self-driven.
  • Openness to Productive Criticism. In a supportive workplace culture that’s focused on the growth and success of the individual along with the organization, people look forward to constructive criticism and guidance, especially when it’s a regular part of the workday rather than part of a dreaded annual review process. 

All of these points can be summarized under the umbrella of productivity, and boosting productivity is a direct avenue to happier customers and stronger profits. When individuals are engaged and challenged, supported and guided, and feel like they are genuinely contributing to the team, they show up more, work independently, and embrace opportunities to learn and grow so they can deliver better outcomes for the organization. 

Middle Managers: The Secret Weapon

While the c-suite may be the group that defines the company’s culture in words, it’s the middle managers who are the most responsible for bringing this vision to fruition. They are the ones in direct and daily contact with the bulk of the workforce, and the ones who have the knowledge and experience of day-to-day operations to transform intangible cultural ideas into cultural norms that define what is encouraged or rejected in the workplace. 

Yet, many managers are struggling to execute these cultural initiatives. Part of the struggle lies with the fact that they are not equipped with any sort of actionable plan or tangible behaviors to use. Managers are focused on delivering results, and cultural changes are difficult to measure on a weekly spreadsheet or add to a task list. Instead, senior leaders need to not only be the drivers of such change, but also demonstrate what it looks like while providing training and mentoring for middle managers. That way, they can become the link between abstract thoughts, ideas, and visions of executives and the behaviors, words, and actions that create a thriving culture.

Culture Transformation Mistakes to Avoid

The first mistake right out of the gate is to avoid the idea of “transformation.” Culture is necessarily pervasive throughout all aspects of an organization and attempting to make a handful of small changes isn’t going to get the results that a complete overhaul will have. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the transformation has to happen in one fell swoop; instead, a metamorphosis over time should be the expectation.

Another common mistake is not having clear written values, a well-defined purpose and associated behavior expectations from which to start building a culture around. For people to be able to change, they need to have an emotional connection behind both the reasons for change and the desired outcome. It’s also helpful for purpose and values to be meaningful to the people who are expected to carry them out. We’ve all heard about the workplace with a foosball table and a beer cooler that act mainly as decoys to tempt new hires, but don’t get much use otherwise. Kent Thiry, Chairman and CEO of DaVita Inc., has provided a great deal of insight into the cultural transformation that occurred due to a merger of two major companies, and this is what he had to say about what makes his company’s culture so successful:

What’s different about us is that we’re more intense about adding fulfillment and a higher level of engagement than in some other places where it’s more about making work more fun. We’re about helping people’s lives be more meaningful because they feel they’re part of a team where people take care of each other.

In other words, less foosball and more substance. Another reason for Thiry’s success in transforming his company has a lot to do with his leadership style, and this points to another common mistake: exempting leadership. Change always starts from the top, and the most influential and visible members of the company must be ready to demonstrate the change they seek in others. Lastly, as the culture is shifting, it’s critical for new hires to be assessed for cultural fit. It’s much easier to train a good fit who is missing a few skills than it is to change the personal behaviors of a poor fit who is a technical whiz.

Making Work More Meaningful

The end goal of any cultural transformation of the workplace should be to make work more meaningful for the people who have to do it every day. A successful overhaul starts with assessing the current culture, identifying what needs to be changed, and then creating an executable plan. The completion of a multi-year revamp shouldn’t be the end, either, as a positive environment needs tending and nurturing if it is to survive for long.