Culture Club – The remix

How often do you do some work on your company culture?

When the business is growing fast culture can be a moveable feast, and when everyone is working from home it’s hard to assess. So, is it something you actively keep a handle on as an executive team? Do you have a “Culture Club” in your senior team? Do you sit down on a regular basis and say “How are we doing with the culture of the business? What affects has the pandemic had? Are we still on track?”.

Culture is most often defined as “The way we do things around here” and we all know that a clearly defined culture supports the recruitment and retention of great talent and leads to high performing teams and ultimately business results.

Over the next 12-18 months we are likely to see a lot of organisations increase their M&A activity as some businesses struggle to survive, others will step in and grow by acquisition.

How do you ensure your culture remains true to your original ideals when you are increasing your workforce and/or sites by 25%, 50% or even several 100%?

If you are a business in hyper-growth or acquiring multiple new businesses, you will know that every new employee arrives with a little of the culture they worked in before. Over time this can dilute the existing culture. In an acquisition the existing culture will remain unless you actively work to ensure the acquired employees are willing and able to embrace the new culture.

It doesn’t happen by osmosis!

If you don’t plan for this, you can find yourselves six months or a year down the line suffering from what I call “Cultural Drift”.

You will know cultural drift is an issue for your business, when you are saying, for example “We have a safety first culture, which applies to both physical and mental health” but out in the real world your managers are expecting cameras on for every meeting, and requiring 100% attendance even when employees have the mysteries of quadratic equations to solve and the impact of longshore drift on coastlines to explain.  Are your employees being pressed to cut corners or take risks with procedures, are they reporting mental health issues but still expected to achieve the same targets and objectives.

Cultural drift creates dissonance and confusion – employees hear you say “safety first” “Your mental health matters” but then they hear about their colleagues being expected to work late into the evening to make up for time spent home schooling and their manager suggests that they should do the same. 

A new employee is thinking which is the right way. The one I was sold when I took the job or the way I am experiencing it now? They are unsure, that makes them hesitant, they want to fit in – so they do what their colleagues and managers suggest but now they don’t trust what the leadership are saying about the culture. Now they don’t feel quite as invested as they thought they would or quite as engaged as they wanted to be. This dissonance will have an effect on their psychological safety which will prevent them from bringing their very best selves to work. Their engagement dips, and their performance drops. Ultimately, they may leave, or you may not pass them through probation.

Now multiply that response by the 50 people in the organization you acquired or the 25 new recruits you took on to service that big new contract. And you start to see how not doing the work on culture can quickly affect the results you expect to achieve.

 What should you do?

If you are planning for high growth either by acquisition or a big recruitment campaign. It’s worth getting some help with articulating your culture and values. Equally if you are planning to change the way in which you work – permanently allowing employees to work from home several days a week, articulating how this will affect your culture is good planning.  Having someone external facilitate and challenge you on the culture you want to achieve, or preserve is helpful. You can use that exercise to distil 3 or 4 key messages or values that describe your culture.

Once you have your key messages measure them against 3 key tests

1.      The competing priorities test

2.      The employee saturation test

3.      The Leadership consistency test

For example, one of your culture pillars might be “we are an ethical business that believes in protecting the planet”

Now test this pillar against the 3 tests above.

1.      The competing priorities test –this is about understanding how far you are prepared to go to uphold this value. When push comes to shove what would stop you from behaving in the way you say you want to behave?

a.       What if a big client wants you to use a product that you don’t believe is ethically sourced? How do you respond?

b.      What if the only sustainable option is massively more expensive? How do you respond?

c.      At what point will you say – that’s at odds with our beliefs and values as an organization and we will choose not to do it?

2.      The employee saturation test – this is about understanding how visible this part of your culture is to your employees. How do your employees new and existing know this about the organisation?

a.      Is it obvious from your social media, and recruitment campaigns?

b.      Is it explicit throughout the recruitment process? Do you (for example) test what your candidates’ response would be to situation (a) in the competing priorities above?

c.      Is it part of your on-boarding documentation and training?

d.      Have you been keeping it on the agenda for the past 12 months?  Do you discuss with teams how they can “live the culture at home” Have you celebrated how little fuel is being used, how much less single use plastic is being consumed?

e.      If I had a zoom call with 10 of your employees who had been working from home for 12 months can you hand on heart tell me they would all still know?

3.      The leadership consistency test – how do your leaders embody this pillar?

a.      Is it part of your decision-making process?

b.      Does it feature in your strategy, plans and objectives?

c.      Do you ask the right questions i.e. how sustainable is this option? Comes before how much does this option cost?

d.      Do you measure and budget accordingly?

e.      Do you challenge each other on your behaviours?

The research shows that it is consistency of behaviour that really embeds the culture and values within an organisation. If around 75% of employees are consistently observing behaviour that supports the pillar “we are an ethical business that believes in protecting the planet”. That is when your Culture Club can report a success and say that this really is “the way we do things around here”.

Sarah Cook

MD of WeDo HR Support.

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