Culture stock: using organisational culture to power through tough times

Hey! Shouldn’t you be doing something else? Slashing budgets, innovating wildly, hitting the phones, getting on the road? Wining, dining, shmoozing, boozing and generally being terribly, terribly busy beating the competition? 

I’m glad you’re not. 

Because when it comes to competitive advantage, too many leaders are so preoccupied with all that frenetic outward activity that they forget to work on a valuable lever that’s right in front of them: their culture.

And right now, culture is more valuable – and powerful – than ever. 

Employees are increasingly selective, the economy is wobbly and some clients are – like the NHS – looking for evidence of a healthy culture, or – like Marks and Spencer – actively monitoring their suppliers’ working conditions by gathering direct feedback from employees.

This latter trend is something our clients are reporting much more frequently, across a range of sectors, so if you’re struggling to get onto supplier lists or through the front door, it may be that your website and materials aren’t fulfilling what clients demand of your culture and team. 

Even where that’s not the case, in tricky times, it’s the glue that’s going to get you through – and it could be all the edge you need over your competition.

Why do your people come to work?

The obvious answer is: to get paid. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s tied up with multiple motivations, including doing a good job, feeling a sense of pride, working as a team and having a shared purpose. 

That shared purpose is what really drives organisations forward. And culture is right there with it, fuelling the engines.

What is organisational culture?

It’s another one of those fuzzy yet buzzy concepts, isn’t it? Which is probably why it’s easier to keep busy with the more tangible ‘slashing budgets and hitting the phones’ type of tasks.

It’s about what it really feels like to work for an organisation. It’s salary and benefits and ways of working and ways of communicating. And more.

And it’s something you absolutely need to nail in the current job market. 

Today’s employees want more than a payslip; they want connection and a positive experience as part of the package. The 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index asked what employees look for in a job. No prizes for guessing that pay was top, but next on the list? Yep, culture. Plus, a special report the previous year spelled out that if you’ve got hybrid or remote workers on the team, it’s even more vital to build a culture of trust and flexibility – and the methods for doing that have changed along with the way we work.

Culture doesn’t develop overnight. It’s about defining that shared purpose, plus the values and behaviours that go along with it, and then living it. Those ideals shape the way teams cope in tough times, how they celebrate, how they deal with challenges and opportunities, how they work together.

Looking for a detailed and academic definition of culture? Psychologist Edgar Schein – the first to codify organisational culture in the 1980s – is your friend here.

Schein’s pyramid says culture is made up of:

  • Artefacts – anything tangible that outsiders can see or hear: the way the office is decorated, what people wear, what’s on the walls, what they say to each other.
  • Espoused values – what the organisation says are its values and rules. The way employees might think of and describe it. 
  • Shared basic assumptions – the behaviours that employees don’t even think about – or even recognise. It’s just the way things are done round here. 

All those elements are swimming around in your cultural soup. And BECAUSE cultures don’t happen overnight, leaders need to be throwing in plenty of good stuff during the easier times, to make sure there’s enough in the pot to see you through the bad days.

How to improve your company culture

The fact that lots of leaders ignore culture, or think it’s too complicated or slow-moving to influence is exactly why you should. It’s certainly possible to plan and manage culture, retaining the employees you have, boosting productivity and weighing in to boost your employer brand. 

So why wouldn’t you? 

When Remedy Healthcare Solutions came to us, they were a relatively young business (given that Covid 19 effectively shelved any other initiatives in the sector in the early 2020s). Post-pandemic and ready to grow, the leadership team knew they wanted a stand-out culture to be one of their main competitive advantages.

Even with an agile, scale-up mindset and largely remote team, by baking authentic culture work into their brand, we were able to help them shape and plan a people-first approach that gave them a genuine point of difference.

The work we did with Remedy, among others, follows this, our model for cultural change.

  1. Get outside help

As Schein suggests, so much of culture becomes invisible if you’re part of it. Outsiders can spot behaviours and attitudes that you’ll miss, or which your teams or managers might hide from you.

They’ll give you a more objective viewpoint, with no axe to grind, helping you to define where you really are, and what the possibilities might be. 

  1. Look and learn

Trusted partners on board, it’s time to understand where you’re starting from. Internal focus groups and anonymous surveys or feedback tools not only give you the information you need but they’ll also start the crucial process of getting your employees involved.

To change anything, you need buy-in. First, find out what your workforce thinks of the culture. Whether you’ve officially defined your values or not, what do they think your organisation believes in and stands for? Is there a disconnect between the values and what people are experiencing?

From here, you’ll be able to work out how much you need to change – and because you’ve measured these results, you’ll be able to monitor your progress along the way. 

  1. Redefine your values

Spread out the results in front of you – together with any materials you already have about values and behaviours. Take a long hard look and have the courage to dismiss anything that no longer serves you. 

  • How does it all fit with your current business strategy? 
  • Is your structure designed to support the behaviours you’re looking for, which will get you to your goals?
  • What do you really stand for? 
  • What’s going to unite your team and achieve the goals you’ve identified?
  • How do you reward people?
  • How do you appraise and develop performance and skills?

Employee engagement isn’t just about reporting on the status quo. Encourage your people to suggest fresh ideas, new solutions, revised ways of thinking. Opening up suggestion channels, workshopping certain challenges and rewarding innovation can create a wealth of suggestions that your people are more likely to embrace, because they haven’t been imposed by the management without consultation.

Remember though, you’ll still need owners of the project, who have the skill, courage and authority to sift through the ideas and select which to pursue and when. 

  1. Communicate relentlessly

Once you’ve decided goals and a plan, it’s ALL in the communication. Nothing will stick unless you’re absolutely relentless at demonstrating the values in action, rewarding behaviour that supports the culture you want to see.

Honestly, if you think you’re saying it loud and clear, multiply it by 10! You might be clear and committed in the boardroom, because you’re invested in it – but elsewhere in the organisation, you’ll need to keep on pushing it forward, listening, reiterating and opening the conversation.

Bring people with you not by bashing them over the head with a new set of rules, but by vividly painting a picture of where you want to be. When people understand the goal, and feel inspired by it, they’re much more likely to accept the discomfort of change.

And role model the new ways. The whole leadership team needs to be aligned – acting the new behaviours and talking about them too. 

  1. Be emotionally intelligent

Change isn’t easy. Some people find it harder than others, but by watching out for your team’s emotions, perhaps anger, nervousness, frustration or confusion at times, you’ll be better able to pre-empt problems. 

Be sympathetic. Listen. Carry on role-modelling the new approach and re-emphasise the vision in compelling and exciting ways. Expect to experience a degree of pushback – it doesn’t mean you’re on the road to failure. It means you’re on the road. 

Anger and anxiety often come from the same place – uncertainty. So remember to carry on relentlessly communicating. But don’t pretend everything’s great if it’s not; transparency about the challenges shows you’re listening, and honesty about not always knowing the answers will help people to trust you. 

And say thank you. Clearly and properly. Show people you’ve seen their efforts and bolster their stamina by proving that you’re genuinely grateful. A strong culture is one in which people feel valued and heard.

  1. Think long term

Cultures aren’t shaped overnight and cultural change takes time too. Remember to revisit the research you did initially – and let people know how things are progressing. Check in with a range of people in diverse roles and make it safe for them to be honest about their experiences.

When it comes to culture, it’s going to develop one way or another. Instead of letting it embed of its own accord, create a vision and a plan to bring a healthy, happy, motivated workplace to life.

Read how we helped Remedy to define and communicate its culture – creating the cornerstone of their employer brand.

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