Why Culture Drives Outcomes (and How to Shape It)
Recently there has been a lot of focus on organizational culture in the news, and what can happen when culture goes bad. You've probably read about the problems at Uber and Tinder. Even if your organization isn't a high profile tech giant or hasn’t made the news for its toxic work environment, culture is a powerful force which shapes the day-to-day behaviors of employees and outcomes of organizations in all industries of all sizes. I have learned through founding and leading a charter school and helping open more than a dozen schools in New York City, that more than anything else, culture is what really drives outcomes.
Values are the Drivers of Culture
Culture is not ping-pong and bean bags. Culture is really made up of values, the key behaviors which create a sense of shared expectation and accountability in any organization. These behaviors become embedded through norms and rituals which are established and reinforced. A norm which underscores a value of ‘respect’ could be giving full attention to each other at staff meetings (i.e. not doing emails or checking phones). A ritual to reinforce a value of ‘being collaborative’ could be a stand up meeting every Monday where staff share what they are working on and what support they need from each other.
Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast
There’s a saying: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” You can have the best strategic plan in the world, but if the people in your organization can’t execute, your strategy is worth about as much as the paper it’s written on. If you believe that the people in your organization are the single most important driver of outcomes, then your organizational culture is something you need to pay close attention to.
Founders of organizations often neglect the critical work of building great cultures. One reason for this is that founders typically have great technical expertise; perhaps they were former teachers who want to start a school or software engineers launching a technology company. And while they are brilliant educators or developers, they haven’t managed people or built organizations before. And, in the throes of start-up with so much to focus on it’s easy to lose sight of what will really drive outcomes, the people in the organization. I am defining culture as the norms and rituals that dictate how people behave in an organization, what is permissible and expected.
The Catch-22 of “Culture”
“But we have a clear mission and we hire really smart people,” many leaders believe, “so it follows that they will figure out how to work together to achieve our collective goals, right?” Here’s the thing, culture will be formed in any organization. The question is if it will be left to chance or is it intentionally designed to point everyone in the direction you want to go and bring out the best in people.
Some indications that a culture is weak include poor staff attendance, high turn-over, lots of negative water cooler talk, and the organization not getting the results it wants.
Conversely, organizations with strong cultures are places people enjoy going to every day, where they stay to build their careers, and where ideas and initiatives about how to drive growth come from engaged employees.
Culture Starts at the Top
Culture starts with the organization’s leadership. People look to the leadership for an indication of what behaviors are expected and which are not. If the leader cannot articulate a clear vision, the leadership team lacks cohesion, meetings start late, agendas are not set, etc. the staff gets the message that these things don’t matter and that there’s nothing unifying the team. What results is an every-person-for-themselves environment where people lack a sense of purpose, are unhappy and feel unsafe. Even the people who support the leadership are neutralized when there are no explicit norms of behavior since there is nothing to hold colleagues accountable to or offer support for.
Meaning - Not Just Words on a Website
Core values are not just words on a website. To be effective they should be created with those who are expected to uphold them and they must be imbued with real meaning to those particular people -- i.e. they should not be taken from another organization or developed by the leadership and given to the staff. These will be empty words on a page.
Some things you can do to ensure you are building and maintaining a strong culture:
- Guide staff through a facilitated process to unearth the values that matter most to the organization’s health and success. One great question to get the ball rolling is to ask each staff member, “What is one thing in our culture you are really proud of?”
- Based on those values agree on the norms and rituals that all staff will uphold
- Dedicate time to establishing these norms and rituals and designate time throughout the year to reinforce the culture.
- Hire with culture in mind – design a hiring process which makes clear to prospective employees how the organization does things.
Don’t Impose Culture
A word of caution: it’s a fine line between building culture and imposing it on people. It’s one thing to do exercises together as a team to build cultural values, and it’s another thing to hand them a piece of paper and say, “This is what matters to us, this is how we show we’re positive.” Engage them in a process to create culture together, get their input and reflect their ideas back to them. This will create not just buy-in but true investment, when they see their thinking reflected in the values and rituals they are being asked to uphold.
When there is a strong, positive culture with clear values staff can support one another and hold each other accountable to uphold the behaviors that are important to the organization and its people.