Every organization has a culture.
Some are intentional, some are accidental, and many are a combination of good intentions and poor implementation.
Wilfredo de Jesus, during a session of the 2016 Global Leadership Summit, said, “No one drifts upstream... Going upstream takes WORK. You never drift against the tide.” This resonated with me as I have seen it proven out time after time. People do not accidentally become better. Organizations do not drift towards success. Hard, intentional effort is required to maintain something great, something lasting, something healthy.
It’s relatively straight-forward to document and introduce culture values, and even implement things like peer-to-peer culture evaluations, supervisor culture-performance surveys, and team-building events centered around specific values. It’s much more difficult to make those values part of the day-to-day communication and functioning of every department, role, and organizational relationship. Many of us can relate to the sense of hypocrisy felt when listening to an executive of our workplace tout the “amazing, healthy culture.” The day-to-day application should be leadership’s ultimate goal, and will determine the team’s perception of the integrity of claims to have a great culture.
Policy or Propaganda?
Propaganda can be valuable. It can be branding that is used to promote your organization or yourself as a leader. It can be used to attract new business or talent. It can occasionally be used to motivate your team, but that will become increasingly challenging if the stated values aren’t actually prioritized and enforced across the board. If you’ve taken the time to develop clear culture values and introduced them to your team, there are a few key indicators that will tell you if you have a successful culture or if you simply have propaganda.
- If any person in leadership isn’t bought in and applying organizational culture values to their decision-making and conversations with their teams and direct reports, you don’t have a successful culture. You have propaganda.
- If any entry-level employee or long-term team member isn’t fully aware and constantly reminded of the values and how they relate to everyday functions, you don’t have a successful culture. You have propaganda.
- If team members aren’t able to apply the values as they help build your processes and structure and perform the everyday functions of their role, you don’t have a successful culture. You have propaganda.
- If there isn’t trust by every member of the organization that they can safely raise a flag and say, “We aren’t meeting our culture standards,” you don’t have a successful culture. You have propaganda.
The key to maintaining culture is the protection of every value in every circumstance. To be fully successful, it must start at the top because the behaviors of the leaders will always trickle down to the members of the team.
Once your organizational culture is established: Policy, Process, Protect.
Culture values are significantly more detrimental than helpful if they are statements you preach but don’t practice. They should be part of the foundation of the business, weaving through all of the administrative functions as well as the deliverable functions. The company handbook should reflect your values just as fully as your motivational speeches. Employee benefits, pay structures, job expectations, and role developments should be catalyzed by a drive to be consistent, unwavering in the dedication to the culture.
From hiring to termination, client onboarding to end of life, event planning to covid-19 decision making, culture values should guide process development and make gray areas much more black and white.
One of my favorite things about our culture is that we have built it into our processes, which makes accountability much more objective and feel less personally targeted. By building our values into our processes, we are able to hold each other to the standards by pointing to the expectations clearly laid out in our task lists, best practices, and templates. It also makes it a lot easier to naturally meet the standards instead of having to specifically remember. Agency life can be chaotic. Even the most detail-oriented person can start to forget what has been done or still needs to be completed from client to client.
There are countless ways to both protect or cause damage to your culture. These are a few that we have chosen to honor to the best of our ability, and strive to apply when we discover a blind spot or misplaced best intentions.
Short of a revelation that you need to adjust a specific value, hire and fire based on your established culture. Your team needs to be able to trust that the environment you've created is safe to act and work within those values and that anyone who is anti will be quickly promoted to a position outside of your organization. Keeping team members who are disengaged from the culture or actively working against it sends several messages to the engaged, productive team members - none of them positive.
Make sure there is enough individual contact between leadership and team members to be able to quickly root out any sign of discontentment and toxicity. Commitment to culture means a willingness to dig and inspire people to share the hard things, the things they would normally be too scared to voice. Set the expectation that each team member is required to raise issues, and build confidence through visible actions that leadership will take appropriate action. Allow team members to confront issues even with leadership by taking the time to listen. Intentionally respond with vulnerability and transparency, admitting when there is a failure to maintain culture values and explaining the decision-making process and perspective when there is a lack of understanding.
Hold all values equal.
OMG’s culture is a singular unit, comprised of three core values (Fun, Care, and Constant Improvement) and seventeen culture statements. If we prioritize one value over another it won’t function as intended.
- Fun requires Care or things will drift towards sloppy.
- Care requires Constant Improvement or our communications will drift towards being too nice and avoid saying the hard things that will push us to be better.
- Constant Improvement requires Care or our efforts to improve will drift towards too harsh/critical.
- Constant Improvement requires Fun or our attitudes will drift towards negative instead of positive.
The overarching key to protecting organizational culture is intentional vigilance. Vigilance is crucial. Never let your guard down. Do your best to catch things early, listen to feedback and encourage your team members who are less likely to speak up. It might feel like this is all you do at first, but over time your culture will become your mantra, ingrained into everything you do, second-nature. The rewards that will follow will be well worth the time and effort spent defining, launching, and protecting your culture.