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7 Steps to Improve your Business Culture

They say that "culture eats strategy for breakfast". So it's worth cultivating the right one for your business.

It’s not just a touchy-feely, intangible, woo-woo thing: academic research (Graham, Popadek et al, Columbia University) proves that having a positive workplace culture boosts productivity and increases the overall value of the company.

Here are 7 things to consider when building your own positive, productive business culture.

1) Know what your culture actually is.

Your culture isn’t what you claim it to be…it’s what it actually is. What actually happens day to day. How to people communicate. Who actually holds power, formally and informally.

It’s day to day life. It’s our ‘normal’.

The first step to building a thriving workplace culture is to know what that ‘normal’ actually is right now. And that involves taking a good hard look at your current working environment.

The challenge there, though is that you’ve probably been living in your company culture to the extent that it’s difficult to see it for what it actually is. You literally can’t see the forest for the trees.

If this is the case, there are frameworks that can help map out your current company culture and give you that starting point.

The Denison model, for example, links business culture to bottom-line performance measures such as profitability growth, quality and employee satisfaction, and its questionnaire measure underlying beliefs and assumptions that people hold about the company as a whole.

Practitioner Ian Thomson, based in the UK, values the fact that the data the questionnaire provides is both detailed and rich:
“Data can be analysed in a number of different ways” he explains “allowing businesses to see what’s happening culturally at different hierarchical levels, within different departments and so on”

Hofstede Insights has a 6 dimension ‘multi-focus’ framework how well employees relate to the company’s culture, how ready they are for change, what sort of culture supports the delivery of strategy and so on.

The CultureTalk framework takes a different, narrative approach. Based on Carl Jung’s work on archetypes, CultureTalk measures culture and the ‘personality’ of your business through a story-based framework. With this cultural awareness you can begin to understand and more easily identify the behaviours you need within your business to meet your goals; or indeed, highlight less useful ‘shadow’ traits to shift away from.

There are of course others. The ironic thing is that your choice of culture questionnaire – if that’s the route you take – will actually say something about your culture…

2. Know what you want your culture to be

Once you have that stake in the ground, it’s important to be clear about what you want your culture and your working environment to be like, what are you working towards?

As you’re considering this, be thorough in your thinking. Having an airy fairy notion of your ideal culture and ‘positive and proactive’ or whatever isn’t enough.

How do you actually want people to behave and communicate? How do you want them to relate to each other? How might the external environment and the decor of the building reflect that?

Who will be involved in defining the culture that you all want to work within, and that will carry your business forward?

How will your internal culture reflect your external brand??

What will you have to DO to make it happen once you’ve identified what it currently is and defined what you want it to be?

3. Create frameworks that support and promote your culture

At the risk of stating the obvious, your new, vibrant, productive culture won’t appear merely by willing it into existence. As the research puts it “simply declaring cultural values does not itself lead to successful business outcomes.”

One of the things that business can do is ensure that they have clear values, and that these are known and understood by all.

More than that, putting frameworks in place to support and encourage the behaviours that those values will produce is important , ensuring that those values are lived and become part of ‘the way we do things around here’, and aren’t just spoken about or displayed in a poster on a wall in the lobby.

A competency framework is another factor which can be leveraged to instil the behaviours that you want to see.

Do you have one? Does it feature appropriately in your performance management system? Do people know how to give feedback on behaviours in the workplace?

4. Ensure your processes support your culture

It’s perhaps back-to-front to think of processes driving behaviour and therefore company culture, but sometimes they do.

Does the rigourous collection and collation of data support and drive a culture of thoroughness and accuracy, for example?

Does overuse of rigid processes undermine the culture of innovation that you say you’re driving toward, or a lack of consistent, documented procedures contribute to a culture of poor discipline?

Processes are almost always put into place to drive efficiency, but it’s worth thinking through what other thinking and behaviours that process might be driving… and whether or not those are in line with your values and the culture you are looking to create.

5. Design your environment to match the culture you’re creating

The physical environment is an obvious reflection of a company’s culture: does yours reflect the culture you want to create?

It’s going to be difficult to promote a culture of creative thinking and expression for example if you have a rule that only items in the corporate shades of blue are allowed in the office. Or that wellbeing and relaxation and being prompted when people are working in individual cells in a vast, impersonal open plan office.

The UK’s Channel 4 series on ‘The Secret Life of Buildings’ revealed a number of examples where the physical environment impacted on behaviour and therefore culture, in businesses and in schools.

6. Align your internal culture and your external brand

Kirsty Innes is the UK’s only certified CultureTalk practitioner, and is an expert in building great brands and enduring organisations.

She says: “There’s no such thing as the right culture or the best culture, but rather we should we talking about distinct cultures. When fusing external brand with internal culture – of course, it needs to be unique. You would never want to copy someone else’s brand, so why would you want to copy someone else’s culture?

She continues: “To make brand-culture fusion happen, we need to articulate a single, overarching purpose to direct, align and guide everything your company does, internally and externally.

In today’s fast, noisy and choice-overloaded world, having a meaningful purpose or being ‘purpose-driven’ is your business’ single, most competitive advantage.

From a talent and organisational effectiveness point of view internally, as well as customer relationship and customer value perspective externally, fusing culture and brand creates real value and real results.

7. Ensure the leaders role model your culture

It doesn’t matter how you slice it up, people will copy what they see before they will do what their told.

In every organisation without exception this means that the leadership must be guardians of and role models for the culture that they want to create. There simply is no other way.

However, sadly “Ineffective cultures may be attractive to some leaders, because the status quo involves less effort than changing to and managing an effective culture”.

Those who choose not to consciously create their business culture run the risk of it evolving on its own – and it could go in any direction.

Those prepared to take on the challenges of doing so will find that “an effective culture impacts firm value significantly”

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