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Creating And Maintaining Culture

Most everyone talks much about work culture or company culture. The bottom line is that culture is who you hire. If you currently have a healthy workplace culture it should be protected and intensely guarded. Hiring the wrong person can disrupt everything. It can destroy trust, lower performance, create division in the organization, cause good employees to leave, change your message, create negative or sideways energy, lose customers, and harm your brand.

When looking for a new member for your team, skills and experience are vital but not the whole story. How your candidate fits into your organization’s culture is a vital part of the hiring decision. Without that fit, even the best person can perform poorly. I can tell you stories…

How do you attract qualified candidates who are also “like-minded”?

Start with defining “like-minded.” You must know who you are. You must be thoroughly aware of and convinced of your purpose, passion, mission, vision—where you are headed. You must know this to know who actually fits with you. You can’t hire or retain the right people if you don’t know what you are looking for.

Be sure you can recruit the best.

First impressions count. Do your recruitment materials create an impression that attracts the right people? Does your website make it easy for candidates to understand who you are and what you believe in? Put your purpose, vision, and mission upfront, along with links to what is important to the company.

Conduct a cultural-fit interview.

The Harvard Business Review offers these questions as a way to assess cultural fit in an interview:

  • What type of culture do you thrive in? (Does the response reflect your organizational culture?)

  • What values are you drawn to and what’s your ideal workplace?

  • Why do you want to work here?

  • How would you describe your culture based on what you’ve seen? Is this something that works for you?

  • What best practices would you bring with you from another organization? Do you see yourself being able to implement these best practices in your environment?

  • Tell me about a time when you worked with/for an organization where you felt you were not a strong cultural fit. Why was it a bad fit?

When you select a person, make an offer, and they accept, you must reinforce the culture and right expectations before the new hire steps through the door. Less is more—you want to make sure not to overwhelm the person with too much stuff. A link to a video from your CEO welcoming the new hire and talking about company culture is a good start. Carefully thought-through onboarding programs for reinforcement and education build culture and morale. The new hire’s immediate manager will be critical to a productive relationship. Your manager is the cultural ambassador.

The company can help managers with this by providing clear descriptions of cultural expectations (such as teamwork, sharing the credit, open communication) and the behaviors attached to them. Managers should also be expected to discuss cultural fit during review sessions over the course of the year. Ideally, at performance review time, how the employee performed is as important as what the employee accomplished.

Intentional communication is the key before, during, and after hire. In fact, over-communication and repetition of key issues is vital.

  • Your company’s reason for existence

  • The specific set of behavior core values your organization embraces

  • The strategic anchors that define success and differentiate your company from competitors

  • Your organization’s current top priority/goal that you can rally around and collectively feel ownership in

But as we all know, it’s not just what you say, it’s what you do. Make sure your leaders model the behaviors you want to see in your company—those who don’t, need to change. And if change is not possible, those leaders need to go elsewhere. It’s that important.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast (Peter Drucker)

Why is it that important? Because, as Peter Drucker said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture drives employee behavior and guides the way a company operates. A strong positive culture means employees are engaged in the business, excited about the possibilities, and heavily vested in the organization’s success. A weak or dysfunctional culture drives self-interest, poor decisions, and mistrust. In the end, a company’s bottom-line reveals the truth. Research shows that it is always harder for a company with a negative culture to outperform one with a strong culture.

Remember, your culture is who you hire, fire, and promote. Virtually every company has a list of noble characteristics and behaviors they value. But that’s not necessarily how it really works. There may be a significant gap between aspirational values and practiced values. To truly close the gap, you have to attack the problem at its root: The issue is that aspirational values almost always come from, and must be rectified at, the top. Though most employees care what leadership thinks of them, they are truly paying attention to what leadership does, not what they say.

Behaviorists tell us no behavior will persist long term unless it is being perpetuated by either a positive reinforcer (providing a reward, such as a promotion or praise) or a negative reinforcer (removing a punishment, such as a probationary period or undesirable tasks). Clearly, leaders set the company’s values, not by what they write on the walls but by how they actually act. Behaviors become socialized, and employees take their cues from how these leaders act and react accordingly. These are what’s called trickle-down behaviors.

As the company grows and senior leadership is not always easily observable, employees begin to act according to what their managers either actively reinforce through praise and promotion or passively reinforce by allowing it. Your company’s employees practice the behaviors that are valued, not the values you believe.

Dr. Cameron Sepah describes types of employees we will find on our team from time to time and what to do about it. I have upgraded his language a little bit to be more PC. 😊

1. Incompetent Jerks (fire fast)

Incompetent jerks are low-performers, and their behavior is incompatible with company values. Hopefully, there should be very few in your company, but occasionally a few will slip through the hiring cracks, or something may have happened that caused them to permanently degrade over time. They drain overall employee motivation by not contributing equally to the workload and are toxic to company morale. They must be identified and released as fast as possible.

2. Competent Jerks (rectify and repair or separate)

These people are high-performers but exhibit behavioral tendencies that are destructive to company values. Anyone who lacks empathetic behavior or people skills to the point that it causes interpersonal issues is a detriment to your company. It’s a big mistake to retain competent jerks because they are seen as critical to the company or difficult to replace. This only reinforces their behavior and sends the message to the team that as long as you appear to be indispensable, you can behave any way you choose. Imagine the chaotic culture that will develop over time.

Despite the fact that these folks are strong performers, it should be made clear that behavior incompatible with company values is not tolerated and they will need to rectify and repair their behavior in a measurable way within a given period of time. Put them on a “Values Improvement Plan” (VIP). For this, 360-degree reviews—from an employee’s manager, peers, and direct reports—are a great way to assess improvement, or else be separated from the company. “The reason I like giving these folks a chance is that sometimes employees who aren’t entirely inflexible or pathological can improve when they realize that their job depends on it. Often times, this requires entering therapy or executive coaching with a skilled psychologist, which is worth its weight in gold if the employee is willing to change,” says Dr. Sepah.

3. Incompetent Nice Guys (manage or move)

Incompetent nice guys and gals are the exemplars of your culture and are well-liked by almost everyone, but unfortunately are not high-performers. They can only earn a 50 percent maximum possible employee rating because it is nearly as much of a sin to tolerate incompetent people as it is to tolerate jerks. Giving free license to someone to underperform just because they are kind or likeable sends the message that it’s more important to be socially skilled (or at worst, be a brown noser).

Incompetent nice guys should be put on a traditional Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), and skillfully managed in order to give them training and feedback to improve their abilities. When their incompetence stems from a fundamental disconnect between their strengths and their current role’s demands (e.g. mediocre social skills in a client-facing role) one solution is to move them into a different role. (The person may be an analytical whiz if moved to a more technical role). Of course, if that is not possible or does not work out, they should also be separated from the company. Encouraging an incompetent person to find a position that’s a better fit for their strengths is truly the nicest thing you can do for them.

4. Competent and Outstanding Nice Guys (praise and raise)

Competent nice guys and gals should be both praised and given the opportunity for advancement. They are the company’s power plants—adding value beyond their job description by asking and doing what is best for the company. Given how rare these individuals are, bosses should go out of their way to attract and retain them. Outstanding nice guys and gals should be formally recognized and rewarded with raises and promotions. These are the current or future leaders of your company, and need to be nurtured and cherished.

Culture can only improve when there’s a baseline of openness, where people feel they can come forward and share concerns or opportunities for people and teams to do better. If people don’t trust what happens after they give their feedback, then reviews will be “positive” and not provide any useful information. This requires both anonymous surveys and the promise that community feedback is valued and will be acted upon.

So if you want your company’s culture to be congruent with those noble aspirations written on your walls, you must hire well and then continually assess how well your employees are behaving compared to those aspirational values. Develop ways to bridge the gap between aspiration and practice. The best way to do this is to directly reinforce value-driven behavior, including making it an integral part of employee’s reviews and weighting it as highly as performance.

As the old saying goes, you reap what you sow. As leaders, you get the behavior that you reward. Your culture is who you hire and how you maintain the relationship and grow it.

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