Corporate Culture – Part 3

In parts one and two of this series, we’ve looked how corporate cultures affect the outcomes a project attains and where cultures come from. In this final post in the series we’ll look at the mechanisms through which cultures spread and what organizations can do to promote a healthy culture.

Pretty much every business leader understands the value of having a positive corporate culture. The state of many businesses however illustrates that not every business leader understands how to shape the types of positive attitudes that make the difference. A speech to rally the troops and an inspirational slogan may look like solutions, but many of us will have experienced organizations in which such efforts have fallen flat. That’s because culture is not a set of words, it is an ongoing dialogue and dynamic brought to life through management’s action. A sense that a speech is just flavour of the month or in any way disingenuous, can quickly result in a cynical response from those in the trenches. Acting as a wedge between management and workers such strategies can quickly backfire.

Of course the problem is that culture is not a one time movement or something that can be switched on and off at will. Culture is a way of life. Shaping a positive culture requires a consistency and longevity that reinforces expectations and allows norms of behaviour to permeate the organization’s thinking and actions. It means leading by example and recognizing that from top-to-bottom, culture is an “us” thing, not a “you” thing, with which only workers need comply.

When talking to business leaders who have successfully maintained positive cultures a few lessons appear.

Guarding the gates

First of all, nurturing and protecting a culture requires that you to hire the right people in the first place. Managers who take corporate culture seriously assess an applicant during the hiring process to find out if the person is a good “fit”. As well as looking at skills and experience, they check to see if the applicant cares about the same things as the organization. Rather than trying to impose a specific outlook on a person who simply does not care, they try to hire people who share their basic values. Finding such candidates is not always easy. It may take several layers of interviews to get beyond the superficial gloss job seekers naturally put forward when questioned, but the cost of picking the wrong person can be magnitudes larger than the cost of an effective interview strategy.

Secondly, they are exceedingly careful in who they promote. They recognize that the higher you are in management the more influence you have over the corporation’s culture. In fact, they recognize that culture is one of the primary mechanisms through which leaders guide the actions, decisions and interactions of those they lead. To ensure that power is a positive influence rather than a negative one, candidates for promotion are carefully groomed and validated before they are given the horses reins. Rather than promoting the sycophants and well connected, promotion decisions are based on what people have achieved, their interpersonal skills, their work style and their commitment to the organization’s values.

Maintaining the positive momentum

Of course, hiring and promoting are not the end of the story. Positive cultures are about managing expectations and in some of the organizations I spoke to in preparing this series of posts, all new hires participate in a “corporate induction” program that introduces every new employee to the values of the corporation. Such programs are sometimes as simple as a meeting or two with senior managers followed by a period of mentoring. In other cases they involve out of office retreats or several weeks (or possible even months) of structured induction activities. No matter the style, ultimately those sessions are a vehicle through which expectations are set and the foundations for the culture are laid down.

Those expectations lie at the core of how cultures work. A culture can be thought of a set of expectations we have of ourselves and of others. Those expectations drive our own actions and when we see them being violated we feel a sense of cognitive dissonance (the feeling that something is not right) that then compels us into take action to right the situation. For example if the corporate culture says that quality is important and we find ourselves in a situation in which we feel quality is being compromised (without good reason), we feel a sense that this isn’t right and hence take action to address the issue. Partly imposed upon ourselves and partly exerted through peer pressure the culture’s expectations set the norms of behaviour that are the benchmark reference against which the team holds each other accountable.

For that mechanism to survive there needs to be: clarity of expectations, consistency in messaging, regular reinforcement and consequence in violation. If management talks about their values once in a blue moon, the expectations won’t harden enough for them to become a force that moves people. If management turns a blind eye to violations of the cultural norms, the expectations will weaken over time and the sense that we need to act will be lost. Essentially each individual will revert back to their own personal norms or personality based cultures will pop up lower down the totem pole (potentially both positive and negative ones) and senior management will have lost its ability to lead using culture as a tool.

All of the above may sound like an impossible dream to some business leaders. Several of the most significant business successes of our time illustrate it is not. Branson’s Virgin group, Chip Wilson’s lululemon athletica (lower case is apparently the right spelling according to lululemon) and Steve Job’s Apple are all examples where the business leaders credit their success in part to the cultures they managed to create. Does it take effort? Yes it does. Does it take skill? Yes it does. Mostly however it takes a passion for the business and the ability to set and manage expectations.

The message for Project Managers

Some Project Managers may feel that corporate culture is something that is completely out of their hands. They see culture as being the purview of Senior Management and feel powerless to influence things in any way. There certainly is some truth in that, but abdicating all responsibility for culture overlooks the fact that Project Managers are leaders in their own right. As such skilled Project Managers can still exert some degree of influence over those working with them in the team and when done well, that influence can be a contributor to success. Again the same basic messages apply. Establishing and maintaining a good culture requires: clarity of expectations, consistency in messaging, regular reinforcement and consequence in violation (I would however recommend a gentle escalation of consequences of course rather than a more draconian act that does more harm than good and I would suggest validating your approach with your own manager before embarking on a journey that will likely take some practice to perfect).

Related blog posts and articles:

  1. Culture’s Cogs – Since writing the above I’ve been doing more active research into the field of corporate culture and have been interviewing people who have experienced positive cultures to find out more about the mechanisms through which cultures propagate. Check out my “Culture’s Cogs” blog post to find out more.
  2. Intellectual Infrastructure – Feature article illustrating the steps taken by one organization to shape a positive (note this is a software development type organization, but there are very strong parallels with a variety of other organizations I’ve visited that have positive cultures in place
  3. Incentives Infrastructure – A blog post exploring how incentives shape behaviours (positively or negatively).