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Building a Great Company Culture

Great company culture
Company Culture

Building a Great Company Culture

Describing how to create a great culture in a short blog post is a little ambitious. Books have been written on the topic, including my own, The Power of Company Culture: How Any Business Can Build a Culture that Improves Productivity, Performance and Profits (Dyer, 2018). Just the same, I’ll outline seven pillars of culture here. You can explore them in more detail in the book.

Before we get to the pillars, it’s important to note that culture has a life of its own. Even if you do nothing, culture will sprout and grow within your company, influenced by the company vision, employee personalities and interactions, leadership style and other dynamics. As my coauthor Kim Shepherd and I argue in Remote Work: Redesign Processes, Practices and Strategies to Engage a Remote Workforce, you need to be deliberate about shaping and nurturing the culture to ensure you get the kind you want.

The Pillars of Great Company Culture

Pillar I: Transparency

To promote transparency in your company, you need to ensure that relevant information is exchanged freely, including financial performance and staff and department roles and goals. It’s also important to make sure diverse viewpoints are heard and considered through open communication. When employees work with shared information and insight, they act more cohesively, while also benefiting from different opinions. This enhances motivation, performance and improves employee retention.

Keep in mind that the context in which you share information is important. For example, if the financials take a dip one quarter, share the factors that contributed to the dip, whether it was poor internal decisions or market factors beyond your control. That way you avoid undermining employee confidence, while also setting the stage for discussing what the team might have done differently.

Pillar II: Positivity

Many studies have demonstrated that positive thoughts, words and actions can elevate work performance and create a positive company culture (Avery et. al., 2011; Dutton et. al., 2014; Livi et. al., 2015; and others). Conversely, when we focus on negative issues, like problems, the effect can be just the opposite. Even phrases like “overcoming challenges” and “removing obstacles” suggest a deficiency. Of course, in business you have to solve problems. Or do you?

Instead of solving problems, consider issuing an invitation to make a positive change. There is more at work here than simply changing the words. There are two approaches to driving positive change that can be useful: appreciative inquiry and positive deviance. In the appreciative inquiry model, teams focus on what currently works very well to imagine what might be. The group then can design and work toward a desired future state (Corporation for Positive Change; 2015).

Positive deviance grew out of the observation that, within communities or groups, some individuals employ unusual but effective strategies to drive greater success than their peers (Positive Deviance Initiative, 2016). The unusual strategies may seem counterintuitive, but it is hard to argue with success. Others can adopt the same strategies, and the practice promotes out-of-the-box thinking.

Pillar III: Measurement

Speaking of counterintuitive, measurement and metrics may not seem to be consistent with something warm and fuzzy like culture. However, collecting and analyzing data promotes objectivity and minimizes blame-casting. When people know that results will be tracked and shared, they take stronger ownership of their efforts. In addition, sharing results allows you to recognize successes.

You can track a wide variety of key performance indicators (KPIs), so focus on the ones that have the biggest impact on your business. KPIs can measure customer satisfaction, employee performance, sales performance, financial health and other variables. To get the most out of what you measure, set targets, evaluate the data frequently and leverage the data in making positive change.

Pillar IV: Acknowledgement

When you acknowledge your employees publicly, you help them fulfill basic human needs such as building trust and enhancing self-esteem. According to Dr. Jack Wiley’s research, recognition ranks second on the list of attributes employees want most in a manager (2021). Acknowledgement and recognition motivate performance and encourage employees to unite behind your company’s vision.

Make a point of giving verbal accolades to strong performers in meetings, lunches and other company gatherings. Not only will you boost those people’s motivation, but you also will promote trust among co-workers. If you publish regular newsletters or have a company-wide chat room, share the recognition there as well. To give the acknowledgement even greater weight, you might offer rewards such as gift cards or service plaques.

Pillar V: Uniqueness

People want to be part of something that is different from the rest. If your culture feels like “just another brick in the wall,” as Pink Floyd puts it, start introducing shared experiences and attitudes to bring employees together. A variety of things can set your workplace culture apart from that of your competition. You might host monthly contests or sponsor unique outings. A powerful way to differentiate your company is to develop internal language that is understood only by your employees.

For example, at PeopleG2, we have different names for different kinds of meetings. If there is a small issue that needs a quick solution, we might call a “cockroach meeting.” It’s not a big deal, but someone has to stomp out that cockroach. If an issue is larger, we call a “tiger team” meeting — dealing with a cockroach is one thing, but dealing with a tiger requires a whole different level of planning. This shared “insider” lingo reinforces the bonds among coworkers and creates a welcoming environment. That, in turn builds loyalty and promotes retention.

Pillar VI: Listening

Just as it is essential for you to communicate things like your company’s vision and expectations of employees, it is important to flip the coin and listen to your people. When you use active listening tactics, you show employees that you respect them and value their input. Active listening tactics include not interrupting, replying only when relevant, and echoing back what you hear to confirm you understand it. When you hear a great idea, make a point of letting others know that it came from an employee.

We live in a world full of distractions, like smartphones, computers and background noise. In addition, when someone is hungry or sleepy, it’s hard to pay attention (that’s why it’s best to schedule meetings in the morning, not right after lunch). One of the biggest challenges to effective listening is cognitive bias. There isn’t room here to go into much detail about overcoming cognitive bias, but there are plenty of resources you can use (Soll et. al., 2015; Fouts, 2018; Rampton, 2020; etc.).

Pillar VII: Mistakes

Let’s distinguish between mistakes and errors here. Honest mistakes happen despite people’s best intentions and judgement. Errors, on the other hand, are the result of careless practices, often including failure to follow established procedures. Mistakes give us an opportunity to learn, adjust our approach, and try new strategies, while errors only teach us to pay better attention.

At minimum, your culture should encourage people to admit mistakes. Ideally, your culture should celebrate them, particularly the ones that lead to new insights and ideas. A great way to encourage a positive approach to mistakes is to publicly admit your own mistakes, including showing how the mistake helped you learn and innovate.

Looking at all the pillars, you can see that no single one functions on its own, in a vacuum — there is a good deal of overlap. Good listening enhances transparency, for example, and acknowledgement promotes positivity. If it incorporates all seven pillars, your culture should support productivity and performance, and help you attract and retain top talent. And don’t you want to work in a great culture yourself?

References on Great Company Culture

Avey, J. B., Avolio, B. J., & Luthans, F. (2011) Experimentally analyzing the impact of leader positivity on follower positivity and performance. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 282-294. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2011.02.004

Corporation for Positive Change (2015) Appreciative Inquiry. Available from: https://positivechange.org/how-we-work/appreciative-inquiry-ai [Last accessed October 26, 2021]

Dutton, J. E., Workman, K. M., & Hardin, A. E. (2014) Compassion at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1, 277-304. doi:10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091221

Dyer, C (2018) The Power of Company Culture: How any business can build a culture that improves productivity, performance and profits. Kogan Page, London.

Dyer, C and Shepherd, K (2021) Remote Work: Redesign processes, practices and strategies to engage a remote workforce. Kogan Page, London.

Fouts, M. (2018) Overcome Biases And Blind Spots In Decision Making. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/10/09/overcome-biases-and-blind-spots-in-decision-making[ Last accessed October 27, 2021]

Livi, S., Alessandri, G., Caprara, G. V., & Pierro, A. (2015) Positivity within teamwork: Cross-level effects of positivity on performance. Personality and Individual Differences, 85, 230-235. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.05.015

Pascale, R, Sternin, J and Sternin, M (2010) The Power of Positive Deviance: How unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA

Positive Deviance Initiative (2016) What Is Positive Deviance? Available from: http://www.positivedeviance.org [Last accessed October 26, 2021]

Rampton, J. (2020) 7 Ways to remove biases from your decision-making process. Available from: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/351497 [Last accessed October 27, 2021]

Soll, J.B., Milkman, K.L. and Payne, J.W. (2015) Outsmart your own biases: how to broaden your thinking and make better decisions. Available from: https://hbr.org/2015/05/outsmart-your-own-biases [Last accessed October 27, 2021]

Wiley, J (2021) The employee-centric manager: 8 keys to people-management effectiveness. Employee Centricity, La Fontaine, Indiana.

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