This is a guest blog of Natasha Delisle-Barrow, People + Culture Partner at our partner Unleashed. A far-from-your-average consultancy that supports high-growth businesses scale both successfully + sustainably.
Given that I am a People + Culture Partner (and I’m not one for suspense), I guess it’s no surprise that the answer to this question (for me at least) is a resounding No. But hang on: that’s not the end of it. I have my reasons for my answer.
There are those who will say that culture is this woolly, “nice to have” an invisible comfort blanket that doesn’t really matter. But those of us in the know understand that culture can determine whether your business succeeds or fails. Culture is even powerful enough to differentiate you from your competitors and attract superstars to your business. In short, it is the business’ superpower.
It’s not unusual to think that once you have defined and articulated the culture, values and behaviours of your business, then that’s it. The work is done and we can all live happily ever after. However, companies are living breathing ecosystems which have to evolve and adapt in order to respond to the challenges they face. Pandemics, competition, organisational restructures, scaling. Whatever the challenge, the ability to respond quickly and deftly to those challenges will ultimately be decided by its culture.
There have been so many stories about companies whose workplaces have allowed their cultures to do anything other than serve them well. And yet, many leaders will wait for the toxicity to set in before they take action. Let’s face it. It really shouldn’t take an exodus of employees and an open letter to tell you that something isn’t quite as it should be.
4 consequences of a bad, weak or simply the wrong workplace culture
The effects for a company with either a bad, weak or simply the wrong workplace culture in place are wide-ranging and will manifest themselves as either:
1. Low levels of productivity + quality of work
A strong company culture will help define “what great looks like”. Culture drives high performance, innovation, autonomy and impactful decision making. When a strong and sustainable culture is built, it generally produces three outcomes. Employees are equipped to respond to any situation, they know which decisions are the right ones and they know that they will be rewarded for demonstrating the company’s values. Strong cultures encourage high performance.
2. Declines in employee well-being
Unhappy workplaces are stressful workplaces. So, it is no surprise that employee mental health and wellbeing will decline as a result. A lack of role models and accountability are often the two biggest triggers for mental health decline at work. Weak workplace cultures can lead to psychological distress and burnout – depression, anxiety and stress disorders. A disaster for both individuals and the company.
3. A revolving door of employees
Surely it goes without saying that no-one really wants to work in a place with a weak culture? The company culture and its values are the key reasons why a person will join a company and also why they will leave it. Sure salary and benefits are essential to good job design. But without a fitting sense of purpose, values, and behaviours in place the waters become muddied, clarity becomes foggy and the lay of the land is nothing more than a Spaghetti Junction. According to a recent study, we are heading towards a mass exodus with 1 in 4 employees planning to move to new opportunities. In a YOLO world and with all things being equal, can you guess what will differentiate one company from another? Purpose, Culture and Values are the components that attract high performing employees and they are the reason why they stay.
4. The migration of clients
This goes back to my first point. It never surprises me how few leaders make the link between company culture and customer retention. The Customer value proposition is linked to your employees behaviour. How they are treated is directly influenced by organisational culture. Engaged employees are happier, more productive and invest in relationships both internally and externally. Quite frankly, they’re better to deal with. Engaged employees thrive on accountability and responsibility, they will take ownership of their work and become your company’s biggest cheerleaders.
Happy Employees = Happy Customers
How to assess company culture?
So now we know what culture is and its impact, it’s important for leaders to take a temperature check on their current workplace. Understanding if your culture is supporting your company’s strategic objectives is essential.
The great news is that this is a whole lot easier than you think and can help you identify any potential problems lurking in the horizon.
Assessing your company culture is a whole company activity and should be an ongoing process not left to your People people to review each year but the responsibility of all leaders.
1. Get happy with data
We’re not talking huge data sets or pages of pivot tables here, start small and scale. Tip: Employee turnover and absenteeism are generally good starting points. Exit interviews will mean that you can dig deep to understand more about the current culture and why it’s not supporting your employees and why they don’t want to stay.
Once firmly established, these metrics should be built out to include data gathering on candidate feedback on job applications, onboarding feedback etc. There is a world of knowledge to be found in data.
Want to know how to hire for Culture Add without losing your culture?
2. Engage with Employee Surveys
Surveys are a great way to dig deep into the factors that impact culture. Factors such as leadership, people + teams, employee voice and inclusion + belonging. Surveys are brilliant for getting creative and honing in on specific themes which influence company culture. Most employees love to share their experiences and give feedback when they can so give them the platform to speak up.
If a big annual survey is not your thing, then regular pulse surveys such as a weekly happiness survey can be used to measure happiness levels instead. They can be a general wide ranging survey or designed to uncover a specific question. Use them as you wish and see what themes work best.
There is only one golden rule with an engagement survey: once conducted, remember to take action.
What are you seeing and hearing?
Culture may not be tangible but it shows up in behaviors and conversations, it is visible and you can hear it. How are your team members acting in meetings or team gatherings? Do they ask questions? Do they offer their opinions? How do your leaders react when challenged by a team member or offered a different perspective? Are your employees comfortable with raising a concern or an issue? How do they make decisions or share knowledge? How do they speak with your customers?
Stand back, take a minute and listen in. So now that you have done all of that, you’re ready to make the changes. Here are my top three-simple-to-execute-change makers.
3 simple-to-execute-change makers
1. (re)Define what Great looks like
Going back to the drawing board is no bad thing and there is no better place to start then understanding What Great Looks Like at a leadership, team + individual level across your business. Codifying the behaviours + values which will help to differentiate your business is a strategic no-brainer. Culture defines who you are as a business.
2. Review your People Practices & embed culture and values
Are your desired behaviours evident in your vital touch points such as your hiring, your onboarding, performance enablement or even your exit points? Don’t leave it a Townhall announcement and a large glass of hope to embed culture into the company. Work with your people team to review the key experiences within the employee lifecycle and make sure they are fully embedded.
3. “Be the change you want to see”
Most of all remember, that to ensure that any changes to your culture and values are fully integrated and brought to life, you as a leader will need to role model them. This reflects back to the business as a whole what great really looks like. Founders and leaders can express the company goals through values and beliefs that will allow the company to adapt to the external environment and understand what is required to grow and change. Many leaders will set out the most detailed strategic plan but without understanding and living the power dynamics that make culture what it is, these plans are easily derailed. Culture and leadership are fundamentally linked and in the famous words of Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for business”.
So, there it is. Whether you are defining your culture for the first time or revisiting your culture to achieve your strategic goals, the answer to the question “Is it ever too late to change your culture” is still and will always be a resounding no.