I often ask the question “if one of your employees won the lottery tonight, what is the thing that would make them
want to turn up to work tomorrow anyway?”
While most executives have the best intentions of inspiring and engaging their people, rarely do they hit the mark when it comes to culture.
We say that people are our greatest asset, but to make sure of this you need to establish a culture in which they can thrive. Otherwise they might just be your greatest expense.
Doing More With Less
The last couple of years have been tough. We have all been trying to do more work, often with less people and resources and we keep pushing our people to do their best in trying times. But increasingly research shows that the key factor in the individual success of our people is not intelligence or money or even motivation, but the environment in which they work and develop.
However, most people don’t even know what their culture is. One question that I regularly ask during my keynote speeches is if people can clearly articulate their organisational culture. Invariably less than five percent of people answer in the affirmative.
When I ask people to explain the elements of culture in their organisation (their vision, values, mission statements and the like) the result is the same again. This is independent of position – the new recruit has as much chance as a senior manager of being clear about culture and its elements.
Whether they can explain it or not and whether you like it or not, your organisation will have a culture. Here are some tips for trying to make sure it is the right one.
Your Culture should look like this…
People always ask me what the key elements of high performance culture are. They expect me to rattle off some inspiring generalisations about what gets us to the top – things like hard work, integrity, discipline, honesty. But the truth is that there is no particular trait that is necessary for high performance culture.
When you look at all the strongest cultures in the world and throughout history, you will find that the things that are imperative in one culture are not necessarily prevalent in another. Different businesses focus on different things, different sporting teams have different priorities. If you look outside these two regularly examined fields and look at cultures in the military, in street gangs and religious sects, you find that they have extremely high levels of engagement, commitment and clarity, without the expected cultural traits.
So what should your culture encompass? I suggest you start by scrapping any pre-conceived idea you have of what makes a great culture. Start from scratch and ask yourself a few key questions:
- What is our competitive advantage and what does this mean for the behaviours that we want people to engage in?
- What do your people need to do to be most effective? Then identify the things about your organisation that enable people to do these things, and the things that stop your people from doing these things
- What will inspire people? You don’t ‘discover’ this element; you merely ‘uncover’ it. Ask your most engaged people why they come to work every day and do their best and you will begin to understand the things that will really engage your people
Making Culture Work
Despite our best efforts to make our desired culture really work, as you can see from the statistics, it rarely does. Where does it get stuck? Here are the key things to keep in mind to make your culture really work.
1) Make it Important and Relevant
There was some astonishing research done in the field of neuroscience recently and, in particular, the way the human brain reacts to information. The findings? We don’t pay attention to boring things. Wow – is that groundbreaking, or what?
As obvious as this seems, the problem with a lot of culture projects that managers roll out is that they are just plain boring. They might be interesting to the management team, but hardly anyone else in the organisation ‘gets it’. I often ask the question “if one of your employees won the lottery tonight, what is the thing that would make them want to turn up to work tomorrow anyway?”
While most executives have the best intentions of inspiring and engaging their people, rarely do they hit the mark when it comes to culture. Understanding what is important to people seems like common sense and it is……it’s just that it’s their common sense, not yours.
2) Make Culture Clear
Take the time to really define the culture. If I ask a ten-person executive team to explain the culture of the organisation I usually get ten different answers. Now ask every manager in the organisation to give their view and you will see why culture is unclear. When our brains have to filter this much opposing information, we tend to give it limited attention.
Each person in the organisation that is responsible for driving culture in any way should have a clear understanding and explanation of what the culture is, what it means for all stakeholders and how it is defined in terms of key behaviours.
3) Over-communicate Cultural Elements
We also pay more attention to things that we see regularly.
Research tells us that the average employee gets about 9,200,000 bits of information a year. The culture is usually rolled out with some fanfare and series of workshops to let people know what they’re in for. When these efforts are put into the context of 9,200,000 bits of information, it equates to about 0.0005% of the total communication budget for the year. With this perspective, it is easy to see why most culture efforts fail.
The answer is to over-communicate and you need to enlist the help of each and every manager in the organisation to achieve it. This is where real traction takes place – when we mention the culture or values or behaviours at every possible opportunity. People should be hearing it hourly, meaning every interaction needs to be delivered with reference to one of these cultural influences. When you feel like a broken record and when people start to finish your sentences for you, then you know you are getting there.
4) Reinforce through Leadership and Systems
Here’s where it gets critical. The other parts of this framework may have been on your radar. You may have done them already or have been part of an organisation that has in the past. But you are far from finished.
The next piece of this leadership puzzle is the hardest. It is relentless and can be tiring, but is a necessity to make sure the good work you’ve done so far actually makes sense and gains traction.
Culture needs to be reinforced with everything you do and say. Recruitment, rewards, promotions, leadership behaviours, operating systems and processes – these are just some of the many things that need to be aligned with the culture that you are trying to establish. They need to support your people and make it easy for them to execute the desired behaviours.
I guarantee that there are things you do or don’t do, or say or don’t say, as a leader that completely undermines the things that you set out to achieve. Some of those things are glaringly obvious, some need more investigating to uncover. But they will be there. Ask your people and I guarantee that you will be surprised at their response.
Establishing the right culture is an ongoing, relentless pursuit for each and every leader in your organisation. It involves an enormous amount of time, effort and personal resources, but the payoff is staff that are more productive, more motivated, more successful and, ultimately, your greatest asset.