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Three Steps to Creating an Intentional Culture

cultureCreating the right culture for an organization is a key component for long-term success. Unfortunately many leaders don’t know how to clearly define culture, much less build the one they want.

Workplace culture is the character and personality of your organization. It’s what makes your organization unique, and is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, bubbles, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes as manifested in behaviors. In short, culture equals the sum total of “who we be” created by “what we do.”

Culture is defined by the actions that occur each and every day to accomplish (or not) the business of the business.  It manifests itself in the way decisions get made and how people interact with each other. This includes everything from the sharing of ideas and exploring information to how people disagree and resolve conflict. Culture also includes the environment (physical and mental) that the “doing” occurs in – what is on the walls, in the break rooms, and everywhere else.

Cultures should not just happen, but in many cases they do. Which leads to the million-dollar question: is your culture accidental or intentional? In other words, does it happen on its own, or is it the result of a deliberate effort on the part of leadership to create a culture that best supports winning?

Unintended consequences of accidental cultures

Culture doesn’t result from the good intentions of company leaders (or anyone else). You can plaster the walls with posters about excellence and teamwork. You can talk a good talk during team and company-wide meetings. But if you don’t define the values that guide your organization – and then live them – people will fill in the void by operating off their own.

Many organizations believe that having a list of desired attributes, such as innovative, respectful and integrity, means they have that kind of culture. Not true. When people’s behavior doesn’t align with the values, that culture does not exist. Remember that “integrity” was the #1 value of Enron.

One of the best ways to achieve the desired results is by measuring actions. The flip side of this is that organizations often have too many measures, which leads to a lack of focus. Or they measure the wrong things.

Consider the case of a company with a large inbound customer service call department. Management determined that call times needed to be shortened, so they began measuring call times. Unfortunately, they didn’t ask if their customers wanted shorter calls. What customers really wanted was to get their issues resolved. Customer retention dropped significantly because management measured the wrong thing.

Another example is the “just say yes” culture. Companies think they’re establishing a can-do, go-getter culture by saying yes to almost everything. In reality, this often overwhelms people and sets them up to focus on the wrong things or on less important priorities that don’t support winning. The overlap in activities can cause people to become confused about their roles, and it wastes a lot of time.

Creating an intentional culture

How do you create an intentional culture?

  1. Observe.

Carefully assess your own culture.  How are decisions really made, and by whom? How do people interact? How are ideas formed and shared? Do meetings start on time? Do they have full preparation and participation by the participants? Do they result in clear decisions, with follow-up on next steps?

Imagine yourself in a lab coat, taking detailed notes of all the behaviors you see going on. The sum total of those behaviors is your current culture.

  1. Define.

Now decide what kind of culture you really want. Then clearly define it at the behavioral level – including what is in and what is out.  Be prepared to adjust your own behaviors to map to the culture you want. As much as possible, eliminate or minimize others’ interpretations of what you want the culture to be.

Keep in mind that values can change over time, and need to be periodically updated. Or, your definitions of excellence may need to shift in order to align. Decide what is non-negotiable and what can be refreshed due to ongoing changes.

  1. Align.

After defining the culture you want, role model it by living the behaviors. Provide coaching to help people align with the values, and don’t tolerate those who violate them.

When you make excuses for people not behaving according to your values, you don’t have any. So when you see people acting contrary to the values, take swift action. You know you’re living the values when you become willing to fire someone who doesn’t align to them.

Call to action: For the next week, observe all the behaviors that make up your organization’s culture. Is what you see what you want?

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