“What does it take to create a good office culture?” a company leader recently asked me. In the light of #MeToo, I’m hearing this question from a lot of clients. As a leader, you have the power to create and sustain a positive workplace experience for yourself and your team. A core element of that is the organizational culture.
Culture is a powerful tool for sustaining the organizations, in good times and bad. My HR colleague Marcia Riley, who has a background in working with health organizations, calls culture "the connective tissue of an organization.” What makes up a positive culture? John Coleman identifies six elements that comprise a great corporate culture in a recent Harvard Business Review article: Beth here: Many of these are ones you’ve heard before. However, in this day and age, your organization may need to revise some or all of these elements to stay current with the needs of a 21st Century workforce.
"If you are lucky enough to be someone’s employer, then you have a moral obligation to make sure people do look forward to coming to work in the morning." -- John Mackey, Whole Foods
Coleman’s Six Elements of a Great Corporate Culture
1) Vision. This is a basic, but the vision needs to be there to set the tone for the organization – why are we – as a group of people – here working together and towards what goal? Vision articulates the organization’s purpose. When a vision statement is “deeply authentic and prominently displayed, good vision statements can even help orient customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders,” Coleman says. 2) Values. Values guide the mindset and behaviors that allow team members to fulfill the vision, Coleman says. Make them clear throughout the organization. Talk about them. And the originality of those values is less important than how authentic they are, Coleman notes. Beth here: In this time of #MeToo, revisiting the organization’s values is essential. You want to ensure your culture reinforces values that honor and respect all players on the team and the people your organization serves. 3) Practices. Coleman says that values mean little if they aren’t enshrined in the organization’s day-to-day practices. This is the “walk the talk” of values. Whatever those values are, a good gut check when times are tough or hard decisions are to be made is, “how does this square with our core values as an organization?” Southwest Airlines’ decision to avoid layoffs in 2009 by implementing a hiring freeze, offering voluntary buyouts, and freezing the pay of senior management and top officers is an oft-cited example of an organizational core value of “people first” in practice. 4) People. People who share the organization’s core values or “possess the willingness and ability to embrace those values” are the glue that hold together the organization’s culture. For a public agency, for example, it might mean assessing candidates for how they demonstrate the ethos of public service in past assignments. In the private sector, it might be an ethos that’s customer oriented or in a nonprofit, it might be an ethos that’s member services oriented. 5) Narrative. Marshall Ganz served a key role in Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Movement, Coleman notes, and Ganz helped to structure the Obama campaign’s organizing platform in 2008. Ganz's subsequent work at Harvard is about the power of narrative and it’s a core element of culture. The recent movement towards storytelling demonstrates this point, and organizations that have strong cultures use stories to build that culture. We can think of many examples of organizations – Whole Foods, Patagonia, the World Wildlife Federation -- that do this well, either formally or informally. But Coleman says these stories “are more powerful when identified, shaped, and retold as part of a firm’s ongoing culture.” 6) Place. We often forget this when we think about culture, but the movement towards coworking, the emerging coliving movement (hat tip to John Craig), and creative placemaking make the point that geography matters. Coleman emphasizes that “place shapes culture.” He adds: “Place – whether geography, architecture, or aesthetic design – impacts the values and behaviors of people in workplaces.” How is your “place” defining the culture you have at work? Plus…here are two more from me: 7) Commitment. This is the stick-to-it-iveness (that’s a term of art :) ) that you want people to have. How dedicated are they to the purpose you’ve defined for the organization? Great cultures create opportunities on an ongoing basis to engage people and keep them productively engaged. 8) Openness. Great organizations have cultures that are open to new ideas; a diversity of people, experiences, and viewpoints; and innovation. Perhaps most notably, one of the key lessons of #MeToo is the importance of creating a culture where it’s safe for people to speak up when the core values of the organization are not aligned with today’s workforce, or your organization is not honoring its core values. Finally, how can you measure the culture in your workplace? First, you can look for Coleman’s core elements (plus my two) at an organizational level – what’s present? What’s not? What’s out-of-step or in-step with the needs of a 21st Century workforce and workplace? Second, employee engagement surveys are great ways to track culture. Other tools are exit surveys, organizational climate assessments, and even market research – what do the people you serve tell you they see about your organization in action? Good workplace culture today isn’t something we can take for granted. We need to be aware of what it is and how to create it, in order to ensure we can deliver on positive impact as organizations. More resources about creating great cultures: