A Culture of Success

After years of discussion and research, one thing is clear about workplace culture: Getting it right is very important. Like employer branding, culture exists in every organization, whether everyone is aware of it or not. Also as with employer branding, it is very important that leaders in organizations take the reins of their culture; otherwise, it will have an uncontrolled definition.

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I recently sat down with Tabitha Laser, an expert and author of the recently released book Organization Culture Killers, to have a detailed discussion about culture. Laser officially defines culture as “an integrative pattern of human knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors and basically, it’s the way we do things around here. It’s always present and shifts easily depending on the situation.”

Cultivated Culture vs. Organic Culture

As I mentioned above, every organization has a culture, whether it is actively attempting to shape it or not. The difference between the two can be characterized by the terms “organic culture” and “cultivated culture.” An organic culture, says Laser, “is one that just happens. Culture is everywhere … whatever it may be.” A cultivated culture, however, is developed when “you take the steps necessary to foster a culture that delivers the results you desire,” continued Laser.

A Problem of Culture

When it comes to how organizations approach their culture, Laser believes that there is a serious problem. She has been working with senior leadership in various industries for over 25 years “and continues seeing the same issues over and over.” The issues she refers to are twofold: a problematic company culture and leadership’s inability to address the real issues necessary to fix it.

Another complication surrounding cultural problems can occur when organizations try to address the issue but don’t thoroughly consider the impacts of their decisions. When I asked Laser if organizations can do more harm than good when trying to improve company culture, she said that “people can try to do things with the best intent that end up backfiring.” One of Laser’s top examples of something backfiring centers on the concept of a best practice.

“Is there such a thing as best?” asks Laser. According to her, everything can be improved, and when organizations implement a set of best practices, “they are lying to their workforce.” She elaborated that “workers would say they know a better way to do things, this is the way you are making us do things.” When attempts to correct culture take the form of a list of best practices, employers miss out on an opportunity to really grapple with the problem and adapt instead of hoping that concrete solutions will work.

Misguided Incentive Programs

Laser had a lot to say about other methods for improving workplace culture that leave a lot to be desired. One example she uses is incentives programs. She describes a fairly typical scenario:

  1. The organization has a bonus program to determine raises.
  2. That organization does midyear or annual reviews.
  3. A rating system is used, sometimes with metrics and sometimes without.
  4. Everyone will get the equivalent of “meets expectations,” but virtually no one will get the real money-maker: “exceeds expectations.”
  5. Most systems are based on lagging indicators (events in the past that are measurable in retrospect but probably are not right now). Additionally, workers rarely have control over these kinds of things. The kind of value that employees do have is often not measurable and doesn’t play a role.
  6. A large number of workers will often have actually exceeded expectations but are rated on a bell curve, which means that many who really have moved the moon don’t get the recognition they deserve.

This kind of incentive program will result in consequences such as workers who are not rewarded for their excellent work and a lot of demotivated employees who think that nothing they do really matters.

Laser suggests having incentive programs that use leading indicators that employees actually have control over. Such systems require employers to “set [a] definition of success and how to get there, and you can actually show which leading indicators drive to that result.” These kinds of indicators are, therefore, measurable and can result in employees being genuinely rewarded for their hard work.

Too Narrow a View

When a problem employee falls within certain parameters (like potentially belonging to a protected class), HR’s natural tack is to protect him or her. Laser gives an example of a problem employee who creates a lot of safety issues but gets protected by HR while everyone else at the company is in fear of their lives. “That kills culture like you wouldn’t believe.”

Of course, the solution isn’t to hang that one employee out to dry. Instead, Laser suggests two things. First, coach that employee. Instead of just reacting to each individual problem and following the minimum legal requirements, try adjusting the behavior of that individual with coaching. This can connect that person to a real solution instead of just handing out Band-Aids®. Second, have a broader view of the workforce. Laser says to try to find solutions that serve both the one and the many. Both of these approaches likely require training.

HR Managers Are Not Leaders—They Are Advisers

Many experts will tell you that creating a good workplace culture starts with its leaders. Laser identified a major problem with that: HR personnel often have leadership titles like “manager” or “director,” but they are almost always fulfilling an advisory role, thus lacking the leadership skills necessary to impact cultural shifts. They are also often the ones who are tasked with leading cultural improvement efforts.

Because of the kind of training that HR gets—or, rather, doesn’t get—Laser “believes HR professionals … often lack the education and competency needed to grasp enough about human behavior to successfully implement culture improvement initiatives.” She asks, “what does it really take to inspire people to change? If you don’t understand the psychology behind human behavior, along with what it takes to inspire and motivate people to deliver the results you want, how can you truly help an organization improve its culture?”

When it comes to fostering a culture of success, Laser says, “the only way you are going to get the performance you want to be successful is to clearly define your expectations for success and educate, inspire, empower, assure and continuously strive to improve the delivery of those expectations in collaboration with your people.” And the best way to accomplish this is to develop strong leadership competencies and begin leading beyond “best practices.”

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