How To Build A Thriving Organizational Culture [plus survey resources]
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” goes the old saying. But in recent years, we’ve seen strategy go out the window as companies scramble to adapt to pandemic-related disruption. What does all this chaos mean for organizational culture?
If anything, organizational culture is more important now than ever before. You've probably seen your teams become more diverse in recent years, with an increase in:
- Remote workers
- Hybrid teams (a mix of in-office and remote)
- Flexible working schedules
- Increased use of temporary and contract employees
Culture is what holds these varied groups together, allowing them to stay focused on the goal, no matter what happens next.
Leaders can’t assume that a positive culture will blossom naturally. You have to take steps to ensure that your team enjoys an environment that’s supportive, collaborative, and geared towards achieving your goals.
How can you achieve this? First, let’s take a deeper look at culture and see how it manifests in your organization.
Why Organizational Culture Matters
First of all, what even is culture?
A 2013 article in Harvard Business Review tried to find a definitive answer to this question. Business experts offered definitions such as:
- “Culture is how organizations ‘do things’.”
- “Culture is a jointly shared description of an organization from within.”
- “Culture is the sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.”
- “Culture is the organization’s immune system.”
All of these answers are accurate without giving the full picture. Finding a universal definition is tricky because culture looks different in every organization. In companies that emphasize collaboration, culture is all about communication. For companies that foreground reliability, culture is about protocols.
With that in mind, we can perhaps define culture like this:
Organizational culture is the sum of all the beliefs and behaviors that define a team’s “typical day at work.”
Right away, this definition teaches us something important about culture, which is that culture doesn’t come from above. As a leader, you can’t always govern people’s beliefs or behaviors. You can try to influence and guide them, but ultimately your culture will always emerge from within the team.
How organizational culture impacts your business
A strong organizational culture can be a competitive advantage, according to 94% of managers in one study.
Culture defines everything about your company. It dictates how people go about their jobs, how they prioritize tasks, how they work with colleagues, and how they treat clients.
Some of the main ways that your culture impacts your business include:
What does it feel like to be an employee at your company? Your organization's culture defines the way that employees experience life within your team. If employees are excited and energized, that’s probably because of the culture. If they’re stressed or unfulfilled, that’s probably down to corporate culture too.
A strong culture makes it easier to:
- Engage: A vibrant culture helps team members understand the importance of their daily work. They’ll see how they fit in the team, and they will understand how their role aligns with the company’s strategic goals. This leads to higher engagement across the board.
- Retain: Culture is mostly about relationships. When employees have positive relationships with leaders and other team members, they start to feel invested in the company’s overall mission. As a result, the employee is likely to stick around longer, and to seek internal promotion rather than external opportunities.
- Innovate: When teams trust each other, they find it easier to collaborate on improvements. A great culture will encourage people to offer new ideas and seek solutions to their current problems. It will also produce teams that want to level up by learning new skills or adopting new technology.
Ultimately, culture is the difference between an employee who is passionate about their job and one who spends each day waiting until it’s time to log out. If you can build a great culture, you’ll build a great team.
Recruitment and employer branding
Finding great candidates is more difficult than ever. For example, recent figures show that 40% of employers can’t find IT talent, 28% can’t fill HR roles, and 20% struggle to source finance and accounting candidates.
It’s even more challenging when you’re recruiting for hard-to-fill positions, like executives, specialists, or jobs that require a lot of experience. Competition is fierce, and now employers often find that they are the ones who must try to stand out in the recruitment market.
A great organizational culture can help you secure top-level talent, even if you’re not paying top of the market. Your employer branding should highlight what’s so great about your team environment, such as:
- Support: Do leaders ensure that everyone has what they need to succeed? Do colleagues work together to support each other through challenges?
- Team spirit: Is there a chance to build lasting relationships with your peers and leaders? Do people enjoy working together?
- Transparency: Are the management open and honest in their dealings with staff? Is everyone free to share their thoughts on the company’s strategy?
- Community engagement: Does your team think about the world outside the office? Do you encourage volunteering, push for sustainability, or lobby for social change?
These are just some of the cultural attributes that could help to attract a great candidate. Of course, you can only advertise values that genuinely exist within your team. If your organizational culture isn’t as positive as you’d like, then you have some work to do.
Your business priorities are the main drivers of your culture. For instance, if you keep pushing people to make more sales, you’ll develop a sales-oriented culture.
And that’s great – if your top priority is to increase sales. But if your priority is, for example, to improve your customer satisfaction levels, then your sales culture might not be equipped to deliver.
Fortunately, this is one part of your organization's culture that you can influence from above. Clear and well-communicated priorities will encourage everyone to rethink their beliefs and behaviors, resulting in a gradual culture shift. For instance, if you reconfigure your recognition program to reward customer satisfaction metrics, then your team will start to ask themselves, “what can I do today to put the customer first?”
When corporate culture and strategy are aligned, you see benefits like:
- Focus: Everyone is focused on the same outcome, which empowers them to decide where to channel their energy.
- Co-operation: Teams understand how their local goals fit into the big picture. This makes it easier for teams to collaborate and integrate their processes.
- Accountability: Big picture thinking and shared values make it easier for people to answer the question: “why did you do that?”
Alignment doesn’t happen overnight. There may be some resistance, as people argue that “this is how we’ve always done things.” But people are also natural problem-solvers, and they will find ways to develop a new day-to-day routine that aligns with the strategy.
- Culture defines employee experience
- Recruiting is easier when you can advertise a great culture
- Culture helps keep everyone aligned with goals
What does organizational culture look like?
Organizational cultures are like families – each one is unique, and it’s hard to put in words exactly how they work.
(Or, in the case of a toxic culture, how they don’t work.)
Just as there’s no such thing as the perfect family, there’s no such thing as the perfect culture. Organizational culture emerges when people interact with their working environment, which means that:
A positive culture is one that allows people to do their best work.
A toxic culture is one that holds people back.
All of which means that different types of business require different types of organizational culture. Let’s take a look at some of the common aspects of these cultures.
The interaction vs. change model of culture
One way of looking at culture is to measure two factors, and then use these measurements to place your culture on a grid. These two factors are:
- People interactions: How individuals deal with each other, and how teams interact. This can range from highly independent to highly collaborative.
- Response to change: The attitude that people and teams have towards change, whether those changes are internal (new processes, technology) or external (regulations, changing markets). Some groups strongly emphasize stability, while others value flexibility.
When you appraise your team according to these factors, you see four main types of organizational culture, each of which suits a different kind of environment:
- Independent and stable: Teams that focus on well-defined outcomes, such as sales teams or teams with an authoritative leader.
- Independent and flexible: Teams that encourage innovation and exploration, like technology companies and research firms.
- Collaborative and stable: Teams where reliability is essential, such as financial institutions and government departments.
- Collaborative and flexible: Purpose-driven teams that aim to serve, such as non-profits and educators.
This is a good framework for understanding how different cultures suit different environments. For example, some companies thrive when they have independent, flexible teams that can innovate and chase new ideas.
Although this culture might not work in a highly regulated environment where a single error can lead to disaster. In that kind of environment, you need a stable team that works together.
There are other axes you can use to evaluate your company culture. For instance, some models look at attributes such as:
- Internal vs. External focus: A manufacturing team might focus on internal processes, while a sales and marketing team focus on external clients.
- Flat structure vs. Hierarchy: Some teams have a strict chain of command, while others might allow regular employees to speak directly to the CEO.
Again, all of these are cultural alignments that fit different environments. It’s not about whether your culture is good or bad – it’s about whether your culture is right for your team, and ultimately your business objectives.
Understanding current culture in a remote or hybrid environment
Leaders are worried about the impact of remote working on company culture, with 68% of managers saying that their culture can only survive if people are in the office at least three days per week.
So will remote working really damage your current culture, or will it cause your culture to evolve? If we think about the interaction vs. change model, we see that different cultures respond to remote work in a different way:
- Independent and flexible: The ideal culture for remote and hybrid work. People in this culture are prepared to work alone or in small groups whenever they need.
- Independent and stable: These employees can thrive in a remote environment if managed correctly. They will need clear guidelines and the right tools.
- Collaborative and flexible: A little extra support will help these teams to communicate and collaborate, even when they’re not in the office.
- Collaborative and stable: Remote working is the biggest challenge in this environment. Leaders will need to think carefully about how to support remote and hybrid teams.
The pandemic – and the sudden adoption of large-scale remote working – might have already forced a cultural change. For instance, your team might now be more independent than were before. As long as everyone feels supported and achieves their goals, you can embrace these changes and celebrate your new culture.
- Different environments require different types of culture
- Think about your goals
- Think about your obligations (such as compliance or customer expectations)
- Ask if your culture suits your environment
How to perform a cultural assessment
We’ve now seen the many types of culture. However, from a leadership perspective, culture falls into two main categories:
- Cultures that work – A culture that attracts, engages, supports, and retains great people.
- Cultures that don’t – A culture that makes it hard for teams to achieve their goals, resulting in low engagement and high staff turnover.
In practice, many cultures are a mix of both. And, even if you have a great culture, there is always room to improve.
This is why it’s such a good idea to perform regular cultural assessments. Assessing your culture is a multi-step process, so it takes a little time and some solid planning. Here are the steps you’ll need to follow for each assessment:
1. Review the rules laid out in official policy documents
Everything that’s published in the company’s name can have an impact on culture. Every internal document will do at least one of the following things:
- Establish rules for conduct within the team
- Encourage the team to focus on certain priorities
- Set the standard for internal communication
Employee handbooks, HR policy guides, compliance training materials, and even employment contracts all have a big impact on how people behave. These are your agreed rules of conduct, laid out in black and white.
2. Look at internal communications
There are other important types of official internal communications like progress reports, mission statements, declarations of goals and values – all of these tell people what the company cares about most. Even internal dashboards showing live stats will set the tone for employee behavior. For instance, if a team has a public whiteboard showing sales for the quarter, it emphasizes the importance of sales.
Everything else sets the tone for how people speak to each other. Memos from leadership might be friendly or formal, detailed or concise. This tone will influence day-to-day communication between colleagues – and that kind of interaction is the beating heart of your culture.
3. Use anonymous online surveys
Online surveys are an excellent tool for finding out what’s really happening in your team. Because these surveys are run by third-party services, such as us at Helios HR, you can guarantee that they are anonymous. SurveyMonkey and Google Forms are two free services with excellent analytics tools that will help you study the data if you want to attempt to do it internally.
Anonymity encourages honest responses because people don’t have to worry about receiving backlash. Even if you have an open, speak-your-mind culture, there’s always fear that your opinions might cause friction with your colleagues or leaders. With an anonymous survey, you have a much better chance of capturing truthful opinions.
4. Run employee focus groups
Focus groups can offer much more detailed insight into your corporate culture. In a focus group, you gather a representative group of employees and host a guided discussion of the team environment. You can ask about each aspect of your culture and find out what employees really think. In part four of this guide, we’ll give you a list of topics to discuss.
If you’re dealing with remote and hybrid teams, be sure to consider this when assembling your groups. Hybrid workers will have a different experience from those working entirely in-office, and remote workers will have a different experience again. Don’t take it for granted that culture is a universal experience.
5. Drill down into subcultures
So far, we’ve mostly talked about organizational culture as a singular thing, as if each company just has one culture. That’s rarely the case, especially in big companies. What’s more likely is that you’ll find you have multiple subcultures within the group. Sales will have one culture, HR will have another, and customer service might have a culture that’s different from both. Each of these is a subculture.
The best way to identify subcultures is to start at the top and drill down. Begin by assessing the organization as a whole, but keep an eye out for groups that don’t square with the general culture. Then, start a new subculture analysis exercise with this smaller group. You might even find some sub-subcultures. Keep drilling until you find the smallest meaningful subgroup.
- Cultural assessments are all about communication
- Look how you talk to employees and how employees talk to each other
- Use anonymous surveys and focus groups
- Identify subcultures within the organization
What to Measure in Your Cultural Assessment
Cultural assessment is mostly a matter of going out and talking to your team. Curious to know what should you ask them?
At the start of this guide, we talked about how culture is a collection of behaviors and beliefs. But you can’t simply ask people how they behave or what they believe. Instead, you have to ask questions that gradually reveal details of how they experience company culture.
Here are some areas to focus on.
1. Workplace and interpersonal relationships
Employees mostly experience your culture as a set of interactions. When you talk to a colleague, when you talk to your boss, when you ask someone for help – that’s when you really feel your company’s organizational culture.
Here, you can ask questions like:
- Do your co-workers communicate respectfully?
- Do you feel comfortable about offering feedback to co-workers?
- Is your team focused on the company’s mission?
- Does your supervisor take speedy action to deal with issues?
- Are managers usually available to answer questions?
2. Teamwork, Collaboration & Communication
Next, you might dig a little deeper and start asking about how teams function. You can look at how supervisors manage team structures and discuss how teams interact with each other.
Trust is an essential part of any team culture. Use these questions to find out if employees trust each other.
- Is there a lot of conflict on your team?
- Do your colleagues support you when you need them?
- Who works harder, your supervisor or your colleagues?
- Do you have everything you need to succeed in your role?
- Are your co-workers good at solving problems?
4. Job expectations
In a thriving culture, everyone knows what to prioritize. They also have the skills they need to hit their targets, and they have one eye on their future. Regardless of the environment or the nature of your culture, you need a team with a clear focus on expectations.
Some questions you can ask here include:
- Are managers clear about expectations?
- Do you fully understand your responsibilities?
- Do you feel you have opportunities to grow?
- Do your co-workers know what they’re supposed to be doing?
- Does your supervisor know how to handle poor performance?
4. Trust in leaders and supervisors
Leadership can have an outsized effect on the corporate culture. Their attitudes and actions can inspire passion and commitment among the rest of the staff. On the other hand, if there are issues with the leadership’s conduct, then it can create a culture of mistrust or non-cooperation.
These issues apply to local leaders, senior leaders, and the HR team, so be sure to ask about all of these groups:
- Do you trust that your employer has your best interests at heart?
- Do you feel comfortable approaching your manager about a problem?
- Do you think senior leaders understand day-to-day life on this team?
- Does this company care about its employees?
- Do leaders usually show good judgment?
- Is the HR team supportive?
- Is HR effective in overcoming workforce issues or problems?
5. Engagement and commitment to the company
The main symptoms of a toxic culture are low employee engagement and high staff turnover. When you start seeing issues with these stats, it often means it’s too late, and you have developed a full-blown toxic culture.
Instead of waiting to find out, it’s a good idea to run surveys about employee engagement. You can do a standalone engagement survey, or you can include engagement questions like this in your cultural assessment:
- Do you feel like a valued member of the team?
- Do you like coming to work?
- Are you invested in the company’s success?
- Does your team have shared values?
- Would you say that this is “more than just a job”?
- Do you have any plans to leave in the next year?
- Do you understand the company’s mission?
- Do you know the company’s core values?
- Do you feel your work helps to deliver company goals?
Takeaway: Use the survey questions above in anonymous online survey or in a focus group.
How to Respond to Issues in Your Organizational Culture
After you complete this analysis, you should have a clear picture of why your culture isn’t fully aligned with your goals.
Some of the common cultural problems we see include:
- People don’t feel valued or respected by management
- People don’t have close bonds with their colleagues
- Thick silos between teams stand in the way of collaboration
- People don’t trust their colleagues or their leaders
- Leaders and HR are slow to respond to problems
- There’s no real sense that a purposeful vision guides the company
- Employees don’t have opportunities to grow and develop within the organization
- Goals are unrealistic or communicated badly
Eventually, these cultural problems start to affect the bottom line. Staff turnover rises, revenues drop, and customers drift away.
There’s no easy way to solve an organizational cultural problem. But understanding your problem is half the battle. And communicating with your team is a step towards a solution.
Here are some ways to bring about cultural change.
1. Be open about your findings
If your cultural assessment reveals some difficult truths, don’t keep them to yourself. The team will already know what the problems are. After all, they are the ones who told you about them.
Instead, be open about what you’ve learned. Talk about how communication needs to improve, or how everyone needs to be better aligned with goals. Your team will appreciate this honesty. They will also feel like they have a stake in making things better.
2. Tell truth to power
Sometimes, dealing with a toxic culture means going right to the top. Senior leaders might need to review the organization’s goals and ask whether they’ve got the resources in place to deliver what’s needed. These leaders might also need to review their own personal style of communication and management.
It’s easier to have these conversations if you can back them up with data. Your cultural assessment will allow you to form an argument along the lines of:
- Here’s where we need to go
- Here’s why our culture is holding us back
- Here’s what needs to change about our culture
- Here’s what we’ll gain if we can get this right
If you make a data-driven argument, you will have an easier time getting leadership buy-in.
3. Return to your core values
Strategy is driven by culture; culture is driven by values. What’s really important to your organization? What’s the thing that matters most? Growth? Innovation? Customers? Making a social contribution?
Culture is driven by values.
It’s said that your true values are what you do every day. So, the official statement of values might say one thing, yet your team might be living an entirely different set of principles. For instance, you might have innovation as a core value, but your team spends all day putting out fires. If they don’t have any time to work on research, can you really say that innovation is a core value?
If you’re in a situation like this, it’s time to sit with the leadership team and revisit your values. What can you change to ensure that your values guide day-to-day life?
4. Look at different solutions for different groups
Not everyone will have the same experience of your corporate culture. For instance, remote workers are naturally going to experience a culture that will be more independent and less collaborative. That is simply a natural effect of working in a different physical location.
But this doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Communication tools and good leadership allow remote and hybrid teams to develop a positive culture, one that supports their goals. Instead of trying to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, try to celebrate the differences that make each team great. Equally, don’t think that you can apply the same solutions to every problem. Look for fresh solutions to fit each subculture’s unique challenges.
5. Tackle the drivers of a toxic culture
Culture emerges from the environment. If that environment is toxic, then you’re going to see a toxic culture. That’s why it’s important to try to tackle any aspects of working life that could be improved.
Some common problems include:
- Overworking: Consistent overwork can lead to stress and burnout. This impacts the way that employees interact with each other – plus, it suggests that the company doesn’t care about employee welfare.
- Feeling undervalued: Undervalued and underpaid are subtly different things. Feeling valued isn’t entirely about salary. It’s also about perks, benefits, and employer recognition. If people don’t feel that they’re getting their due, then it can cause the culture to turn sour.
- Lack of support: Employees need short-term support to deliver goals and long-term support to progress their careers. Without that kind of backing from leadership, employees become disengaged, which impacts culture.
Essentially, it all boils down to employee experience. If you can tackle the things that lead to a poor employee experience, you’ll see an improvement in your culture.
6. Bring in expert HR assistance
Dealing with problems like compensation and engagement can be tricky. It’s a job that requires HR expertise, but your current HR team may not have the time or resources to work on long-term organizational change instead of their day-to-day responsibilities.
That’s when you need to call in outside help. An expert HR consultant can help you solve the deep-rooted issues that contribute to a toxic culture. They can also help give you an outsider’s perspective, which will reveal things that your cultural assessment may have missed.
7. Keep measuring and communicating
Most important of all: never stop working on your culture. Even when things are going great, there’s always an opportunity to learn and improve. Plus, if the business starts to grow, then you might need to think about how to scale up your changing culture.
And always keep your team informed. Cultural projects are an ongoing dialog between employees, leaders, and HR. Keep the discussion going, and always be on the lookout for chances to improve.
- Good communication is essential – even when that means telling truth to power
- Look at deep-rooted causes of cultural issues
- Bring in outside expertise when required
- Never stop monitoring your culture
A Strong Organizational Culture is a Springboard to Success
When we talk about HR metrics such as engagement or turnover, we’re really talking about culture.
In a strong organizational culture, your people are keen to start work each morning. They know what they need to do, they know how to do it, and they have a good relationship with their leaders and colleagues.
With that kind of culture in place, you have a mighty competitive advantage. Your team will always work hard to deliver strategic goals and nurture customer relationships. Best of all, your people will plan for a long-term future within the organization. Recruitment and retention won’t be a problem.
It’s not easy to get to this point. If you need some help, organize a no-obligation call with Helios HR today. Our experienced HR consultants will be happy to talk about how we can help you build a thriving culture.