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What is culture and why work on it?

An organization’s culture is a shared set of beliefs, aligned values, and practices that determine how employees and management interact. Culture is a representation of the traits of the people within.

As a leader, your corporate culture is one of the most important things. It needs to be constantly evaluated and should be a continual work in progress. You’re going to have a culture whether you like it or not, so you may want to work on it proactively. Some things are foundational influencers, such as office setup, dress code, business hours, and employee benefits. Other factors include:

  • The organization's size, products and services sold, and how the organization chooses to incentive employees (target, goals, bonuses, commissions, customer satisfaction, etc.).

  • How team members communicate (written and verbal), treat each other, support each other and deal with conflict. As a leader, this is where you need to shine. It’s essential to ensure you have the right people in the correct positions to influence and enforce the right culture.

Culture destroyers include overt and covert in-fighting, back-stabbing, power-plays, and turf wars. Managers who engage in this or exhibit an aggressive, erratic, duplicitous, and confusing style are pouring toxic waste into the organization's culture pool. Nothing healthy will grow. Sometimes you can’t prevent this from occurring within your organization; perhaps a bad hire, a change of position, or some unforeseen circumstance triggers the behavior. As a leader, you need to recognize it and act swiftly to address it. Protect the culture at all costs.

Example of an org chart

Culture and the Org Chart

Your org chart contains the boxes and lines that indicate how everyone is organized, reporting structure, accountability chain, etc. However, your organization's real power (and culture) lives in the white space in between. It’s the closest thing you can point to explaining where culture lives within your organization. No one person owns it; they can help influence it, but it’s where people share experiences, interact, communicate, and experience community.

Beware the Facade

Ensure that you're sincere with your actions. For example, I once knew a company that added a pool table to their office because they liked its projected vibe. When visiting, I noticed that it was never in use. I inquired about it one day, and I learned that none of the employees felt comfortable using it. The reason was that there was a concern that management would perceive them as ‘not working’ or 'slacking off' -- apparently, some employees had been playing pool one day. The CEO had walked by, giving a judgemental look, and commented on slacking off instead of working. Maybe it was meant as a joke, but it was interpreted seriously and took on a life of its own. The belief was that the CEO viewed it as a prop (which they did), making the pool table (and company by extension) feel insincere, and the pool table left as a visible culture damaging symbol.

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