How to create or improve a company’s culture

graffiti on wall during daytime

“Hey Chris, I got a new job. AND I LOVE IT! My boss is really great, he is so nice and down to earth. They welcomed me with a little party and got me an iPad. I just love the place. So different than the past place I worked.”

My aunt had gotten a new job and it was clear she felt something special in the new place. Notice she didn’t say anything about her work or tasks. She spoke of how others behaved, what they did and how they made her feel.

This is the essence of a work culture. Work culture is how it makes you feel.

When you join. As you’re learning your new role. When you’re working on a project. When you’re sick and have a hard time putting in some time. When you make something great happen. When you screw up.

There’s a good amount of debate about the possibility of designing or changing the culture at a given company. I think this is because the culture was created over time and the behaviors and interactions between people have been developed over time.

It is the early leaders that create the initial culture. And it can start off poorly and remain that way for some time. Consider the toxic cultures revealed at some of the famously fast growing startups like Uber, Amazon and Forever 21.

But as the leaders expand and evolve, every company has a chance to improve their culture. The trouble is that often people struggle with what creates company culture. It is referred to as intangible. It is written about as, “...common goals, values, expectations, mission, and the physical work environment.”

This is too abstract. It is difficult to change culture if you think it is about external definitions that are meant to guide behavior.

It is behavior that guides behavior.

You can set all the mission, vision, values you want. You can put a foosball table in the break room. You can set out a snack mid afternoon.

How people interpret those things and behave will guide others behavior.

So leaders have to lead with behavior. If they never use the foosball table or take a break to have a snack, then others will tend not to as well. However if they demonstrate that it is OK to take a break by routinely taking a break, they will be affecting culture because others’ behavior will be affected.

So to guide or change a company’s culture, consider doing the following with others in the organization:

  1. Explore and write down how the company should make people feel.
  2. Now brainstorm the behaviors (words, actions, deeds) that make people feel those ways.
  3. Consider what changes to the physical environment and policies of permission might help support those behaviors. Start small and try two or three.
  4. Create a personal list of behaviors you want to regularly exhibit. Consider having that reference list handy and begin implemnting them as tiny habits.

Note that this is not about creating new rules, mandatory activities and forced socialization.

It is about being intentional with behaviors that make people feel specific ways: Valued, trusted, welcomed, respected, joyful, creative, challenged in a positive way, understood, listened to, etc. If what you do makes them feel that way, they are likely to do similar things to make others feel that way.

That’s how a strong, valuable work culture can be built.

If I look back on what made my company’s culture a remarkable part of our business, it was what we intentionally did that made people — employees, vendors, contractors and clients — feel how we wanted them to feel.

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