Four Ways To Think About Your Employee Culture

Looking through board room door at business strategy meeting

Employee culture is a formidable force. Its strength and power can catapult a company to greatness or doom it to failure.

James O’Toole, author of Leadership from A to Z, had it right when he wrote, “Of all the activities that take place inside an organization, leadership is by far the hardest and most important.” This simple truth is magnified whenever a leader introduces any sort of change into their system. In order for that change to see the light of day—in order for it to really stick—it must first successfully navigate the employee culture.

An organization’s employee culture is a life force of its own. Its primary mission is its own survival. Culture represents the root stock for all past, present and future performance outcomes an organization will ever deliver. Sure, leaders set the vision, but the culture will always have the last word on whether that vision is inspiring or worthy of its enthusiasm and commitment. On most days, an employee culture’s natural reaction to a new vision of the future or a change in direction is, “Talk to the hand” or, “Now’s not a good time.”

Simply knowing that culture is naturally skeptical doesn’t make the leader’s job any easier. Stan Slap, author of Under the Hood describes culture as “moody, neurotic and prone to hypochondria.” Its ability to sense danger is uncanny. This means that, for a leader, culture can’t be an afterthought in moving an organization forward. A leader must carefully consider how their culture will respond or react their business’ needs and plan accordingly. This means a leader needs to be adept at accurately understanding what makes their culture feel safe, secure and comfortable and leverage this understanding when approaching the culture with anything new or something that might be perceived as potentially threatening.

Most leaders know this intuitively, yet many struggle to get it right. Some dismiss culture as the soft or touchy-feely stuff. These negative swipes are often a default for those leaders who become frustrated or truly don’t know what to do with their culture. intangible.

As you think about the unique nature of your organization’s culture and the care and feeding of it, it’s important to approach this important work with a realistic mindset. Consider the following perspectives as you take steps to move your culture and your business forward:

#1: Seek to understand your culture vs. get it right.

As a leader, rather than trying to get your culture right, seek instead to understand it. Toiling to get culture right is Sisyphean at best and will likely lead a well-intentioned leader to frustration and a sense of failure.

Culture is a dynamic, living thing—a melting pot of emotion and skepticism that, on the surface makes no sense, but with closer study makes perfect sense. Culture is not driven by logic or common sense, yet logic and common sense are typically what leaders toss out, expecting a logical, common sense response in return. Understanding the unique nature of culture takes dedicated effort. It means a leader must be capable of pinpointing, with expert precision, what makes their culture feel safe and secure in a range of different contexts depending on what that leader is working to promote, be it vision, strategy, change or anything else that requires a culture’s cooperation. In simple terms, it means a leader needs know and understand their audience—what it values, what it believes, what it needs and what it’s driven to protect.

#2: Accept that there’s a gap.

Systems scientist and senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, Peter Senge, noted that in all organizations there are always at least two cultures at play: the leadership culture and the employee culture. This gap exists even in those organizations whose high-functioning, high-morale employee cultures have become lore in business writings and often celebrated as the gold-standard for leaders to strive toward—company’s like Southwest Airlines, Nike and Warby Parker. These are companies where culture, for the most part, seems to work. The emphasis here is on for the most part. The truth is every organization has dysfunction in their culture—even the celebrated ones we read about in books and articles.

In most organizations, leaders drive hard and then drive off—toward their next big idea or mission-critical strategic initiative. This behavior becomes fertile soil for growing the gap.

The art in leadership is seen in a leader’s ability to accurately diagnose the exact composition of the gap that exists between the two cultures in their organization and then use this understanding as context to marshal the energy and right set of actions to narrow it and, most importantly, keep it narrow.

In most organizations, leaders drive hard and then drive off—toward their next big idea or mission-critical strategic initiative. This behavior becomes fertile soil for growing the gap. Then, one day, the leader realizes performance is off, goals aren’t being met or there is a distinct undercurrent dragging down morale. The leader looks back over their shoulder to find their culture fully unified in its defiance and stubbornly unwilling to budge. The fact is, the leader was likely deluding themselves from the beginning.

Their new vision of the future, their change initiative or their improved strategy to compete and win was exactly that: theirs. Their employee culture never bought into any of it the first place and certainly had no intention of getting behind it despite the nodding heads the leader observed (or imagined) when these great ideas were initially announced.

Get comfortable with and accept that a gap exists in your organization and know that there will always be one. Accept that your culture is seeking to protect itself from your exciting ideas and your need for change. Take time to diagnose the composition of your culture gap and take steps to keep it as narrow as possible. Be willing to negotiate what’s reasonably negotiable and be steady and strong on what is non-negotiable.

#3: Caring about your culture isn’t enough.

All leaders care about their culture. But not all leaders take care of their culture. There’s a big difference here.

If there were a holy grail in getting culture right (there’s not), understanding this simple truth might just be it and it would save most leaders many sleepless nights. The difference between caring about culture vs. taking care of culture represents a real breakthrough for any leader who might feel stuck in an endless, no-win pattern of me against all of you.

Caring about culture is expected, but your culture is not impressed by it.  Caring about culture is not a reason a leader can credibly claim as justification for why people should enthusiastically get on board, without question, with the new direction, the new change or the new process. Culture is dutybound to question everything. This is its first and most important responsibility. Culture knows, in an instant, when it’s being worked or manipulated—and it doesn’t like it. Nothing unifies a culture faster than its suspicion of being manipulated, disrespected or taken for granted.

Taking care of culture requires that a leader genuinely has the culture’s best interests at the center of every ask they make. Key here is recognizing that a leader always asks, it never tells their culture to do anything or to think differently. These are decisions only the culture can make, and it will do so only after sufficient evidence is provided to ensure its safety and security.

#4: Have some self-compassion.

There are many thousands of leadership book titles in print, each touting new frameworks and techniques that, if implemented, can turn a mediocre leader into an extraordinary leader. Companies spend many billions of dollars each year in an effort to develop stronger, better leaders, betting that, if their leaders were better, bigger profits and greater business performance will follow.

Leaders are scrutinized by the press and held up to impossible standards set by whatever sells business books and magazines. This sets into motion a no-win dynamic whereby leaders begin to believe they’re not enough or that they need to be more or better. Some react by trying harder be more like someone else, rather than resolving be their personal best and having the courage and confidence to model their own values, their own beliefs and their own style.

There is no force more formidable than an organization in which leadership and culture are unified in their vision of what’s possible, fully cooperating as one to move their shared interests forward.

When a leader is able to establish a track record of doing these important things consistently and believably, their culture will reward them with the generosity of its trust, confidence and willingness to follow.

There is a certain alchemy when this happens that takes time and patience to achieve. Once achieved, though, the impact is undeniable. There is no force more formidable than an organization in which leadership and culture are unified in their vision of what’s possible, fully cooperating as one to move their shared interests forward.


Author: Ayaan