Culture: Do You Define It or Does It Create Itself?

“Culture” is another one of those buzz words going around lately as companies strive to up their game or reinvent themselves.  With the changes in the market after the economic crash of 2008 and the new generations entering the workplace now, the new goal is to make your workplace happier, healthier and higher performing….still all within reasonable cost.

But let’s start with defining: What is a “company culture”?
Basic definitionYour culture is a set of characteristics that define a business.  It is the values and practices shared by members of the company.  It involves employee attitudes, standards (policies and procedures) and “rites or rituals” (i.e. Employee of the Month) that have been ongoing and/or influenced by the communities in which the company operates.

Let’s not think that this is all based on positive influences.  Yes, even negative influences can affect a company’s culture.  For example: Is your company known for “still doing business the same way since…”?  This may actually come across to potential employees as a company unwelcoming to change.

When your company decides it wants to hire a new member to the team, one of the considerations during the hiring process is whether or not the candidate and their skill set will be a “fit” for the company’s culture.  The purpose, of course, is to reduce the change of problems/conflicts that may arise if the candidate does not display the same values or behavior as the rest of the team and so that they can quickly (and with the expectation that it will be easily) fit in with the company and hit the ground running in their new position.

Companies that have a defined “company culture” tend to see employees as a valuable asset, rather than just a body to fill a position, which typically leads to higher productivity and company loyalty.  This is probably the basis why many companies are now working to define their company culture and adjust it if necessary.

But, you can actually create a “company culture” and set the tone or is it something that truly evolves over time based on attitudes and interactions of your employees?  And how you answer that question will determine 1) how you go about defining your company culture and 2) IF you can improve upon it.

Don’t fall into that trap that as long as you define your company’s culture with Mission or Vision Statements and a bunch of policies and procedures that are supposed to “set the tone” for your employees that you have succeeded in setting up a positive culture.  What is put down in paper means nothing if it isn’t communicated and follow-up upon by members of your management team.

For example: You company may “claim” to operate as a “family” – giving the impression that the employees are close knit, look out for each other and do what they can regardless of title or position for the benefit of the whole company as a whole.  But, if your management team goes on a power trip and starts assigning hierarchies and demanding people follow it, then your “family atmosphere” falls apart…and now its just words on a piece of paper.

So, start with: What is your company’s culture?

  • Is it already defined? If not, what are you using as an example to create?
  • How it is defined? Just policies and procedures? How do your employees know what the company’s culture is supposed to be?

Now, look at how effective it is:

  • Is it having a positive effect on your employees?
  • Have complaints gone down?
  • Has tenure increased?
  • Have employee “sick” days decreased?

Next, how is your company’s culture being perceived by the public?

  • Do you have a “reputation” in the industry that candidates may consider when applying?
  • Are you or your employees active in the community where people can get to know your employees better?
  • What feedback have you gotten from customers about the general atmosphere or employee conduct/attitudes?

Yes, it’s a lot of questions to consider but each answer will help you develop and tweak your company’s culture as time goes on and changes occur within the company and the employees themselves.  Coming up with a concept and template that you expect your employees to fall in line with and follow won’t work long-term.  Your employees are that “variable” in the math equation for a perfect work environment – they are always changing so you have to watch, monitor and change with them.

Do You “Motivate” Or Do You “Inspire”?

When we talk about “performance,” our minds automatically go to “how to we improve performance.”  It’s always on the mind of every leader or manager that has a team under them.  We think by coming up with ways of improving performance that it will translate into happier and more productive sub-ordinates.  For the majority of individuals, this is true – however, it’s the steps and processes that most people use that end up not working or even back-firing.

Think about it…

We “measure” performance.  How well or how bad an individual performs at their job is evaluated by a set of pre-determined factors.  We “rate” them based on these factors as a result of our perception of how they are conducting themselves.  We will talk about specifics that apply to their assigned job, segments that they are “required” to excel at in order to maintain their job.  Then we also rate them on: communication, problem-solving, loyalty, etc.  Its like we have some version of the “ideal employee” that we use these evaluations to compare them to or try to mold them into.

Why Performance Reviews suck…

There is a lot of talk about doing away with performance reviews for a variety of reasons.  I personally don’t think we should, but that we should look at re-evaluating how we use them and definitely increasing them from only once a year tied in with a person’s raise.  It is nearly impossible to accurately rate someone based on a year’s worth of performance only once a year…I mean, who really remembers all the details?  If you do something wrong, its probably been brought up already during a disciplinary discussion.  This is why even employees don’t value a performance review.  The only reason why they push to get one is because of the expectation that a raise will be forthcoming as well.

Most managers don’t want to be bothered with a performance review: “takes too much time,” “I don’t know what to write” or even “if they just do their job, then why do I need to go over it.”  The whole concept of assigning future goals and milestones to help an employee improve or excel is lost on most managers.  When they are told to do them, they just want to get through them as quick as possible.

How We Motivate…

Sit back and look at your workplace and even how you conduct yourself.  How do you – whether you are a manager or not – motivate others? Are you being positive in your approach or adding to the negative?  Do you put an employee’s job on notice if they aren’t performing to your expectations?

The #1 way managers “think” they are motivating their employees: Give them a task above or outside their scope of duties and tell them you want to see what they can do with it.  And here’s the problem with that – your “motivation” is attaching an expectation which, in turn, attaches an expectation from the individual on what you will do in return.  That’s not motivating – that’s haggling.

What Inspires You?…

Call it “new-age” talk if you want but have you noticed at up-swing in articles and phrases like: “what inspires you,” “focus on your passion” and even “pursue your dreams.”  Its all over the place as people are getting away from the robotic feeling of going to work and doing the same thing day in and day out.  One takeaway from the 2008 market crash is that more and more people are focusing less on the almighty paycheck and more on creating a happy life for themselves.

When I used to volunteer with a youth group, my role was not to motivate them to become better people but to inspire them to test their own limits and find what really grabs their interest.  Yes, I would give them guidelines and goals but I also let them spread their wings and bring me new ideas or try different things.  I was more the net to catch them along their way.  I watched teenagers who were once wall-flowers that, after I pushed them a little outside their comfort zone, blossomed into passionate public speakers that then went on to do the same for the new members coming on aboard.

Inspire To Perform…

Companies can’t depend on loyalty anymore to keep their employees nor can they think throwing money at them will make them stay.  You are also creating limits to what you employees can dream or create when you pigeon-hole them into a set of expectations or standards to follow.  If you really want to improve performance, take the leash off and focus on encouraging them to share their thoughts and creations.  You may find new methods they offer benefit the company even more and you will finally see that “spark” in their eye where its not just a job anymore, its their passion…and they will WANT to succeed.

Don’t Be The “Too-Nice” Boss

bossWhether you are a brand new manager or have worked your way up the ranks into a management position, don’t fall into the trap of being your employees’ friend.  Remember – you all are at work to complete a job.  You can be friends off the clock, but while you are on the clock – they need to know you are the one in charge…and respect you for it.

No one likes confrontation with their employees, especially if they have more tenure than you, and everyone wants their employees to “like” them in hopes that they will be more inclined to be a team player.  But enforcing the rules and making the tough decisions is part of being a manager – whether or not is will inevitably ruffle feathers with the employees under your control.

The quickest way to loose control of your employees is to loose their respect for you.  Think of your employees like kids: they will tempt and push to see how far you will let them get away with things, so you have to know when and how to put your foot down.   Does this mean you have to be Attila the Hun at the office? No…but you will have to be able to put your foot down without fear of “ruining a friendship.”  Without it, you run the risk of creating a dysfunctional department where you days are spent putting out fires instead of focusing on performance.

Unlike the workplace of 30 years ago, managers today are taught to use a more positive leadership approach.  This is where “performance evaluations” hold even more important meaning.  Where employees used to fear their managers and always expected the “talk” with management to mean that they were going to be disciplined or criticized, today’s employee are actually hungry for guidance and feedback.  They want to know exactly where they stand and how they can improve their job.  This now comes less from an “improving performance” stance and more “personal growth and satisfaction.”  If you were to ask your employees, the biggest complaint they would probably offer is “lack of communication” with you and other managers.  Ask one employee once told me, “hearing nothing is worse than hearing something critical.”  Be direct – don’t use generalities.  Tell employees exactly what they are doing incorrectly and also be sure to offer steps to correct it.  Remember – you are more a “coach” than an iron-fisted manager.

Don’t avoid these types of talks either…you are not doing yourself or your employee any good using this approach.  Eventually, the issues will have to come out.  By addressing them as they occur, you build a trust with the employee that you are honest and truly trying to help them.  Worst thing you can do is never bring up the problem until it comes time for their annual performance review.   Waiting until its time to review the employee, especially if its going to be tied to a potential raise, will only create resentment in your employee.  And they will know how to toe the line…doing exactly what is needed to complete their job and nothing more.  How can you discipline an employee for doing their job simply because you expect them to do more?

So what is the best way to take on a new management role when you are a newbie?

Set the tone from Day One. 

Hold a meeting with your employees to introduce yourself (if you are new), share your manager’s expectations of the department (instilling that you want to be a “group effort” and not a dictator) and tell them directly – “I want us to work as a team but know that it is my responsibility to keep everyone on track.”  I would even go so far as to sit down with each employee individually and ask them about their job, their struggles with it and any ideas they have for improvement.  Open the door – build the bridge between yourself and the employee. ..and then keep that door open, knowing it swings both ways.

Avoid “special treatment” for those employees you bond with or were friends with you before you rise to management.  Will there be special situations that may warrant some sort of concession? Yes – but make sure it isn’t permanent or too different from the norm or your other employees will begin to resent not only you but the employee receiving the special treatment.  This will lead to a breakdown in teamwork,  scheming and back-stabbing – again forcing you to spend your time managing the situation rather than focuses on goals or performance.

Hold regular “team meetings.”  Yes – meetings are the last thing managers have time for with all their other duties, but you need monthly or weekly meeting to keep those lines of communication open.  Spend the first half of the meeting recapping what has occurred or changed since the last meeting (goals, progress, policy changes, etc) and then use the second half of the meeting to ask for ideas and suggestions.  Especially if you have worked your way up through the ranks, you will know that most ideas for performance improvement and customer satisfaction come from your employees – not management.  Listen to what they have to say and challenge them to come to the meeting with solutions.  Empowering them with their own success will add to their personal job satisfaction…and make you look good in the process.

Bottom line – being a manager means walking a fine line. 

Focus less on making everyone like you and more on building a relationship with your employees based on mutual understanding and trust.  It will make things much easier to address when those tough situations come along.