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  • Rick Cramblet

Does Your Culture Stink?

The "smell" of your organization's culture is a bigger deal than you think!

Every business or organization has a culture. Yours does - like it or not. And there's a good chance that it stinks.


Here's the reality... The culture of an organization speaks louder than what the employee handbook does (or doesn't) say. Culture either impedes or supercharges the realization of your "Vision" and "Mission" statements. Culture will blunt your best efforts to move forward or it will boost your efforts beyond the available resources you can currently muster. Culture can be the most beneficial force within your workplace or the most detrimental. Most leaders pay very little attention to culture and lack of attention almost always means the culture stinks.


I often tell clients their culture can motivate their staff to do things they would never ask of them or it can inhibit them from doing what you are already paying them to do...

A textbook definition of culture would be as follows: "Corporate culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company's employees and management interact and handle ... transactions. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires. A company's culture will be reflected in its dress code, business hours, office setup, employee benefits, turnover, hiring decisions, treatment of clients, client satisfaction, and every other aspect of operations.


A key take away from that definition is that many organization's cultures are "not expressly defined". Instead, the undefined culture is "implied" - but an implied culture is open to a wide variety of interpretations. Unless you know what want your culture to be, unless you can give it clarity in your own mind, how can you expect to see progress towards it becoming a reality? Holding that position is as crazy as saying "We don't need to establish a budget for next year's sales - I'm sure whatever happens will be just fine..."


I'm going to assume you do not do that.


What To Do?

Step 1: I recommend you start with a very simple exercise - write down the attributes that you want to characterize your organization's culture. You're the boss - what do you want valued? Write these attributes down in no particular order but be as specific as possible. Do you want "Truth Telling" to be foundational in your organization? Write it down. Do you want want people to "Collaborate" or to "Compete"? Write it down. Do you want your people to be "Creative" or to "Follow Instructions"? Is "The Customer is King" what you want or is it "Company First"?


This process will generate values that conflict and that should show you the benefit of this exercise. If this is what you (the leader) are struggling with, how hard do you think it is for your staff to get this right?


Step 2: Take your list of values and eliminate any conflicts. Be brutally honest with yourself about what behaviors and attitudes you want to see displayed in your organization and make sure they are going to enable you to reach the goals and objectives you have established (here's what Coca Cola UK came up with). Be aware that every "we are" will have a corresponding "we are not" and those can be very useful in eliminating your conflicting values. Being "Courageous" is not in conflict with being "Humble". "Courageous" people can be "Humble" people, but they can't be people who cover up their mistakes. "Humble" people can "Play to Win" people but winning will look very different if humility isn't a value you want to encourage. You are telling people how you expect them to act every day in the execution of their roles and responsibilities - be sure you are being as clear as possible about what those values are.


Step 3: Vet your list of cultural values with other leaders - inside and outside your organization. Show your list to the other leaders inside your business and see if they agree that these are values that would (continue?) take the organization in the right direction. Get ready to be challenged and to defend your thoughts. "Iron sharpens iron" - this is a valuable exercise and worth the effort! Show your list to people you respect outside the organizational "echo chamber" and see what they think. This can require a degree of humility that we don't want to display because we want to look good in front of our peers. Let me encourage you to do exercise this by telling you that most of the people you ask will not have put as much thought into it as you have and this might actually be the start of a useful conversation for both of you!


The Harvard Business Review states "culture can account for 20-30% of the differential in corporate performance when compared with ‘culturally unremarkable’ competitors.” Do you want to outperform your competition? How about making sure you can compete with the best-in-class in your field? What else can you do that will give you the "bang for the buck" like focusing on your organization's culture? There's really nothing; it's time to get started...


Next Time: How Much Does "Culture" Cost an Organization?

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