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June 8, 2021

Conversations Around Your Organizational Culture

Every organization has a culture, whether the leadership team has tried to build it intentionally or not. That culture sets the tone for everything that happens within the organization, from who is hired and how people are rewarded and retained to customer satisfaction and ultimately, profit. The good news is you do have a choice to build yours intentionally.

Organizations tend to think about their culture most when onboarding new hires. They introduce the mission and values of the organization and talk about what the company stands for. As they do this, they think they’re talking about culture. The truth is that culture goes well beyond these surface-level, highly curated statements.

In short, organizational culture isn’t captured by your mission statement, your company’s values, or its perks. It’s also not a one-and-done conversation or something you can translate into bullet points on a slide deck. It’s the responsibility of company-wide leadership to recognize their role in building and maintaining culture. Beyond occasional ownership, it’s daily stewardship.

Creating Your Culture

Culture is influenced by many factors in an organization—industry, maturity, and size being just three of those factors. For example, a government agency will, by design, have a different culture than an early-stage, venture-backed startup company. Culture broadly means “the way work gets done here” and can be difficult to define in simple terms.

The way decisions are made, who communicates what with whom and how often, who decides how resources will be allocated, and what are the primary expectations for response time internally and externally—all contribute to creating culture. Add to this list whether people are expected to work from home, in the office full time, or in a hybrid arrangement and how that impacts how work gets done, and you can see how culture is not a simple recipe.

So, if you want to influence culture, where do you start? Begin by considering how you want team members to feel and the behaviors you want them to demonstrate consistently at work. If there is a disconnect between those two, start there. Then consider what is the experience you’d like your customers and other stakeholders to have with your organization—and assume they will regularly share their experience with others.

Subcultures Within an Organization

In an organization of any size, culture will manifest a little differently from team to team or function by function. Take a value like integrity, for example. In a sales or marketing team, integrity means you tell the truth and don’t exaggerate what you deliver. But in an accounting team, integrity means you pay the bills on time. It’s the same value but demonstrated in different ways depending on the situation.

Another factor to consider is policy. Sometimes your company values, desired culture, and your company policies are misaligned with one another. This might spark a conversation about acting in a way that’s aligned with the letter of the policy vs. the spirit of the policy. Often policies will either lag culture change or leaders will attempt to change company culture by changing policies without doing the necessary work to engage stakeholders in advance. Either way, is it time to change your policies so they align both with your values and the culture you want to create?

A Case Around Basecamp

You may have heard about the recent struggle at Basecamp surrounding company culture. A new hire volunteered to help the organization with diversity issues and more than a third of the company joined the DE&I council. As part of the diversity conversations, someone brought up a decade-old list of names that customer service representatives found unusual or funny.

This list, for which employees recently apologized, was known by Basecamp founders and recognized as a “gross violation of trust,” according to an acknowledgment by one of the founders. However, this statement went on to essentially ask employees to move on rather than having a discussion around the list of names and why it was wrong in the first place.

There are many other layers to this particular culture issue, but essentially Basecamp shut down any discussion of “societal politics.” Which is to say that discussing what’s going on in society (racial injustices, prejudices, acts of violence, hate crimes, political upheavals, etc.) is a fireable offense. And not being able to talk about the issues directly impacts individuals and entire populations of people.

So even though Basecamp may have wanted a culture that was inclusive and a diversity council was working to ensure that happened, the message employees and the public got from the company founders was completely out of touch.

Being Intentional in Organizational Culture

Because company culture isn’t fully transmitted in a single onboarding meeting, it’s something that leaders need to be consistent and intentional about demonstrating through their words and behaviors. Think about what culture you want and why. Then explore how to operationalize that culture.

And since leaders can’t know the lived experiences of their employees, it’s important to talk to them and try to understand the unintended impacts of policies for them.

Company culture will develop with or without a strategic plan. Are you confident that your desired culture will emerge if left to its own devices?

If not, we can help. Our interdisciplinary team can help you talk through the culture conversation and develop a strategic plan for refining or defining the culture you want to develop.