Strategic HR

Feedback: The Key to Growth, Motivation, and Company Strength

by Steffen Maier, cofounder of Impraise

A toxic culture can disrupt business, resulting in low engagement and high turnover and ultimately damaging your company’s reputation. However, culture can be influenced, and new norms can be internalized to help companies bounce back. Even if a company is not suffering from the effects of a negative culture, creating a strong purpose and values from the beginning helps to institutionalize the right kinds of behaviors.


Map Out Your Company’s Culture

As researchers Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi highlighted in a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, identifying with the values and goals of your job (purpose) is one of the three key factors that motivate employees at work. Therefore, the first step to creating your company’s culture should be mapping out a clear and inspiring purpose and set of values.

Your company’s vision and mission statements are important for mapping out where you want your company to be in the future and what you want to achieve. But unlike these elements, a company’s purpose describes the value your company seeks to contribute to society beyond financial and personal goals.

Teachers typically don’t choose their profession for the great pay and amazing benefits—it’s the opportunity to open up students’ minds to new ideas and influence the next generation that motivates teachers each day. As such, your company’s purpose should connect your employees’ work to how it impacts your customers’ daily lives, creating an emotional rather than financial incentive to the job.

For example, Southwest Airlines’ vision is “To become the World’s Most Loved, Most Flown, and Most Profitable Airline,” but its purpose is “Connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, low-cost air travel.”

Purpose and values are two different but intertwined concepts. Values provide guidance on the way you’d like your goals to be achieved. In an article in HBR, managing director of Strategic Factors, Graham Kenny, describes values as the, “behavioral compass” of your company.

Some of Southwest Airlines’ core values include demonstrating proactive customer service and having fun. It reinforces these values by recognizing employees for going above and beyond to help a customer in its Spirit magazine and encouraging staff to get creative with their daily tasks (a YouTube video of a flight attendant rapping safety instructions went viral). As a result, the airline has reached a 20-year customer satisfaction high and is recognized as one of the best places to work by Glassdoor®, Indeed®, and Fortune® Magazine.

However, keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul. Sometimes, changing just one practice can have a major impact. In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg explains how Alcoa Corporation’s new CEO boosted innovation and output by making worker safety a top company value. Eliminating accidents on the job not only decreased hospital leave but also increased employee trust. By encouraging communication across hierarchies about ways to improve worker safety, people were also encouraged to communicate other ideas they had on technical improvements to upper management. This increase in upward communication generated profitable new ideas. When the CEO retired, Alcoa’s annual net income was five times higher, and it was considered one of the safest places to work.

Creating New Norms

Once you have a purpose and list of values, it’s time to start institutionalizing them into your company. For values to truly be adopted and internalized, a simple top-down process isn’t enough. A study by Meliorate found that 70% of all change initiatives fail. Meliorate attributed 33% of this to management behavior that does not support the change, 39% to employee resistance to change, and 28% to budget and other obstacles. To complete an effective culture change, a socialization process needs to occur in which values are transformed into norms that guide behavior in your company.

In their seminal paper, International Norm Dynamics and Political Change, Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink describe three stages to norm evolution: emergence, cascades, and internalization. Though their paper is focused on how norms are developed in society, it is also highly relevant to the creation of norms at the organizational level. The steps of the norm life cycle are as follows:

Norm Emergence

  • During this stage, communication is key. Your company’s norm entrepreneur (or the figure leading this change) should begin by calling attention to the issue you want to change by using the appropriate language and interpretation known as a process called “framing.”
  • Norm entrepreneurs must start off by convincing leaders to embrace the new norm. These norm leaders will play a critical role in communicating your vision and acting as ambassadors for change within your organization.
  • Stage one and two are divided by a tipping point in which a critical mass of people begins to adopt the new norm.

Norm Cascades

  • After the tipping point comes a process during which international socialization occurs to induce norm breakers to become norm followers.
  • At this stage, emulation, praise for norm-supporting behavior, and publicizing negative behavior is important to support the socialization of new norms.
  • A major factor that pressures actors to adhere to new norms is their identity as a member of society. According to International Norm Dynamics, “State identity fundamentally shapes state behavior and identity is, and that state identity is, in turn, shaped by the cultural-institutional context within which states act.”
  • In the company context, if enough employees adopt a new norm, it can redefine the behaviors that are appropriate for that particular identity. At that point, the legitimacy of those who fail to adopt the new norm is called into question.

Norm Internalization

  • At this stage, norms are almost taken for granted and become second nature.

To put the norm life cycle into context, a study of nearly 20,000 employees conducted by HBR and Tony Schwartz found that 54% feel they’re not regularly respected by their leaders. When asked to respond to this claim, 25% of these leaders explained they were simply following the example of other leaders in the company.

To avoid the negative impact of bad management, Google’s Project Oxygen set out to identify the qualities that make a good manager. It found that the best managers were good coaches who empowered their team and expressed interest in their employees’ well-being. These qualities were then institutionalized into the system by creating feedback surveys and management training centered around these skills. Thus these qualities evolved into norms that came to define what it means to be a good manager at Google. As a result, Google has retained the number one spot in Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for 6 years in a row.

Reinforcing Your Company’s Culture with Feedback

Factors such as new hires, growth, and acquisitions will all continue to impact your company culture. Though giving more autonomy to your workers is a good thing, spreading out responsibilities and different layers of management makes it easier for new practices to grow that may go against your vision. It is therefore essential that you continue to reinforce and institutionalize your values throughout all aspects of your employee management strategy.

Start by promoting and recognizing behaviors that align with your new company culture. The 2015 Employee Recognition Report by Globoforce and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found 88% of human resources leaders said company values named recognition to be helpful in reinforcing common values—it resulted in 90% employee engagement and 68% employee retention. The report also revealed that 32% of employees feel that celebrating milestones with peers is emotionally impactful. WorldatWork found that 94% of companies that have peer recognition programs incorporated into their company culture see a positive effect both on employee motivation and engagement.

At the same time, behaviors that undermine the focus and values you’ve created can also be remedied with continuous feedback and coaching. This is especially important during the onboarding process and after training sessions to reinforce new skills.

McGregor and Doshi’s study into employee motivation identified play, purpose, and potential as top motivating factors. Employees, especially Millennials, want the opportunity to grow and develop. Developing their skills with values-based feedback will ensure they grow with—not away from—the company, generating an engaged and culturally minded workforce.

At Impraise, we’ve seen that customers facing rapid growth, structural change, and internationalization increase their chances of success exponentially by giving values-based feedback. Using the system’s feedback customization option, companies are encouraging leaders to think not only about results but also about how each employee demonstrates the company’s values when undertaking assignments. By doing this, companies are encouraging employees to think about their actions in relation to company values and live them on a daily basis.

Now that you’re ready to start your own culture change, remember these key steps:

  • Come up with an inspiring purpose and set of company values.
  • Turn managers into role models.
  • Root out practices and behaviors that hinder the development of your new culture.
  • Reinforce positive practices through feedback.
Steffen MaierSteffen Maier is cofounder of Impraise a web-based and mobile solution for actionable, timely feedback at work. Based in New York and Amsterdam, Impraise turns tedious annual performance reviews into an easy process by enabling users to give and receive valuable feedback in real-time and when it’s most helpful. The tool includes an extensive analytics platform to analyze key strengths and predict talent gaps and coaching needs.