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  • Writer's pictureEdwin and George

Start improving your company culture NOW. A short exercise.

Prelude: A friend of mine at the rugby club was struggling to answer a question when, unfairly, put on the spot and asked by a guest to "define culture ". Someone in the group had a Will-Ferrel-esque-black-out-moment-from-Old-School, where they rambled on about culture being "a living and breathing thing, an interwoven fabric of ideas, behaviours, values and beliefs shared by a group of individuals. Something that you can't understand unless you live and breathe it". Cool.


Culture [ kuhl-cher ]

There’s clearly a renewed focus on culture - whether it’s in a company, a community club or as a member of an association/governing body. (1)

A recognition, perhaps, that we’re going through big changes in the way we work and interact with stakeholders.

Or a recognition, perhaps, that something has gone badly wrong in our workplaces and the way people are treated.

‘Employees have become disconnected and disillusioned – growing accustomed to longer hours, stress and dehumanising work practices. There’s an agreement that company cultures are in decline and something has to be done to put things right.’ (2)

  • The percentage of employees fully engaged at work in Australia is 20%

  • The percentage of managers fully engaged at work in Australia is 19% (3)

  • Microsoft research finds that 40% of employees are looking to change jobs in the next year. (4)

As the UK Institute of Management observes:

‘With employee engagement levels so low, companies are working hard on their culture – they know that the two are closely linked.’ (5).

So, chances are you’re feeling a bit down at work. Even looking for a new role. Bored? Tired of how things are? Here’s something you can do to cheer yourself up:

➡️ Go onto your company website.

  • Read the company mission statement

  • Read the ‘about us’ page

Next, read anything along the lines of ‘what we believe’ statements.

  • Read the company values

  • Read anything you find about the company culture.

It can’t fail to lift your mood (for some).

Unauthentic, happy images of some shiny company – where employees are cherished, supported, empowered and developed. Where cheery customers celebrate innovative, market leading products and services – eager to hand recommendations to friends. 😒

Sustainability, diversity, inclusion, giving back to the community…

  • Either you’ll cheer up thinking about the brilliant company you’re working for, or;

  • It’ll bring a smile to your face (albeit, sadly, ironic) thinking about the rhetoric and current reality.

In his new book ‘The Promise of Giants’ (highly recommended), John Amaechi writes:

‘I read a lot of company mission statements, the ‘about us’ pages, ‘we believe lists and descriptions of company cultures. While doing so I come across text that is obviously ridiculous or delusional. The majority of companies have a sizeable gap between what they promise publicly and what they deliver in reality (particularly in areas like diversity and inclusion).

There’s a pathological disconnect between the stories we tell about our workplaces and the experiences of the people within them. Companies find it easier to talk about their mission and goals – because where they are today is generally pretty uninspiring.’ (6)

So, leaders (and that includes you, your colleagues and all those in important positions - remember Yasmine wrote about Creating Leaders at Every Level) if you want to improve your company culture, you deserve credit.

But note:

  • Improving company culture isn’t a procurement exercise – no amount of solar panels on the roof, table tennis tables in the staff room or doughnuts at the team meeting make one bit of difference, and

  • You won’t achieve anything – and certainly not the aspirational utopian future you wish for - unless you have a crystal clear, realistic, ‘no holds barred’ understanding of the starting point – what things are really like around here now.

Stop believing the hype.

Positive culture change is never realised until people come to terms with the fact that their company isn’t operating optimally.

Have a clear vision - but you will never get there unless you understand the now – critically and truthfully.(7)

Start improving your company culture: A short exercise:

Take a blank sheet of paper.

Draw a table with two columns – leave some space on the sheet below the table.

Think about all the claims your company makes about what it’s like working round here (start with the web site as above - but think wider).

Ask yourself:

  • ‘What behaviours does the company expect employees to exhibit?’ (Write these in the left hand column) – then ask

  • ‘What’s the worst behaviours that are currently tolerated?’ (Write a short description of these behaviours in the right hand column).

The answers to the second question – the words you have in the right hand column – describe your company culture as it stands now.

‘When we choose not to act if we see bad behaviours, they become normalised as ‘part of the culture’ and whenever these behaviours go unchecked (or even rewarded) the company culture re-sets to the new lower standard. The behaviours may make life easier for an individual - but they diminish company performance and a colleagues experience. (8)

Key idea:

Your company culture is defined by the worst behaviours that are currently tolerated

No argument (9)

  • If your company says ‘we empower our staff.’ Great. Although last time I checked a dictionary, “empowering” meant literally “giving power”... so if staff are micro-managed, controlled and have little authority to do anything – you have a culture of micro-management. Write the word ‘micro-management’ in the space under the table on the sheet of paper

  • If your company says ‘we believe in treating all colleagues in an inclusive way.” Great. But if new staff who are different have to change to fit in or are left out or ignored – you have a culture of non-inclusion. Write the word ‘non-inclusive’ in the space under the table on the sheet of paper

  • If your company says ‘we treat all employees fairly.’ Great. But if there are teams where some employees are treated differently and unfavourably compared to others – you have a culture of favouritism. Write the word ‘favouritism’ in the space under the table on the sheet of paper.

Keep going – filling the space under the table on the sheet of paper.

This is the true starting point for your ’improving our company culture’ action plan – not the stories that are in public view.

  1. See, for example, why company culture is more important than ever, Forbes magazine, 17 February 2021

  2. In conversation with John Amaechi: where have all the great leaders gone? YouTube

  3. State of the global workplace 2021, Gallup

  4. The next great disruption is hybrid working, Microsoft Research

  5. Culture and employee engagement,’ Chartered Institute of Management, 22 May 2018)

  6. The promise of giants, how you can fill the leadership void, John Amaechi

  7. In conversation with John Amaechi: where have all the great leaders gone? YouTube

  8. The promise of giants, how you can fill the leadership void, John Amaechi

  9. For more on this theme, see: what you’re willing to tolerate sets the tone for your company culture, Forbes magazine, 24 February 2018

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