311 — 25 Actions to Build Your Culture
Most of these items are familiar. Use any of them to build a more powerful and profitable workplace by deliberately reinforcing qualities you want in your culture.
Once you decide on the culture you want it does not matter where you start. Pick an action you are comfortable with from this list, or just as good, pick something you do every day, or maybe an upcoming project. Make the small change moving in the direction you want, see what happens, adjust, move forward.
1. Decide What Culture You Want
Meet with your management team to discuss and agree on qualities you want more of at work. Ask them to think of a real situation in their past, work or non-work, where they were highly motivated and excited about the task. With that picture clearly in mind, ask them to describe what they think it was that made them feel so motivated? Write down what each person says. Include yourself. Make the list your cultural goal, your desired outcome.
2. Reinforce Qualities You Want
Cultures change quickly when leaders make small changes in the way they do their everyday work, changes that reinforce qualities they want more of in the organization. For example, if you want teamwork, make team decisions, if you want better relationships, get to know people personally, if you want better cooperation across divisions, have division leaders visit field offices in pairs and do not tolerate public criticism by one manager of another department or its manager. If someone has a problem, help them resolve it with that other person or department.
It may take one or two months of steady practice for you and your managers to feel comfortable thinking and acting this way, but when you do you will experience very positive responses from employees, such as; people taking greater personal responsibility, smoother operations, and fewer problems walking in your door.
3. Build Relationships
Good relationships are the foundation for better communications, improved decisions, and increased performance. The most direct way to build relationships is by sitting down one-on-one and getting to know people personally. For more on this see “The Cultural Interview”.
4. Involve People in Decisions
When a decision is coming up that affects people, involve them in it in some way. This doesn’t mean you hand over the store, but it does mean you discuss issues and get ideas. You can always ask for people’s ideas on how to carry out a decision. See also number 9.
5. Communicate the Big Picture
Update everyone regularly on the big picture, how the company is doing, long-range plans, new clients, new developments, problems and opportunities. When people understand the big picture, they’ll make better decisions.
6. Show People How They Fit Into the Big Picture
Make sure employees understand the overall production process, particularly as it affects their work.
They should understand how they fit in, and how to measure their performance. They should particularly understand areas they can control, such as productivity, customer satisfaction, and material loss.
7. Reward Desired Behavior
Recognize and reward desired behavior with ceremonies, bonuses, and promotions. Make recognition very public and personal, so that it is clear to everyone what behaviors are valued and desired. Base promotions on values demonstrated, not just on a vacancy, operational skills, or narrowly defined financial performance. Remember that every action you take is a leader is an opportunity to reinforce desired cultural values.
8. Make Team Decisions
People want teamwork. It is a key to high morale. Encourage managers to share information, discuss issues, and make decisions with their whole team. Help managers see that one-on-one decisions don’t foster a culture of cooperation, teamwork, and trust.
As leader, resist the temptation to respond to one-on-one requests for answers from your direct reports. At your level the problems they bring most likely cut across the organization and effect other departments.
Whenever possible, put decisions into your regularly scheduled team meetings to reinforce teamwork and to make better decisions. Remind your own team that making one-on-one decisions may seem efficient in the short run but in the long run undermines a good company culture.
9. Use a Good Decision Process
Don’t jump to action before those affected have identified the real problem. Get the team together and ask each person to say something about these four questions: write what each person says on the whiteboard or flipchart. Don’t allow discussion or evaluation of any comments.
1. How do you see the problem, situation, or issue?
2. What’s a possible action we might take?
3. What should we consider before we decide?
4. Who would like to do what about this?
For more on this see Make Better Decisions.
10. Invite People to Speak Up
People don’t speak up in meetings or on the shop floor because they don’t feel safe or because they don’t think that anything will be done with their concerns or ideas. Change that. Encourage people to say more about the problem or suggestion (see Number 16 below).
Never evaluate of criticize an idea or suggestion with comments such as, “I didn’t think that will work.”
Turn questions back to the group, “Does anyone have any thoughts about that?”
Encourage action. Ask the group, “Any ideas on what we might do with this?” or “Is this something we should discuss further?” Make sure people understand that you’re concerned about their issues and pleased to help them personally move forward.
11. Open Up the Finances
Make sure employees understand the financial picture, particularly as it affects their work. They should know generally what value they add, what they cost, and the effect of overtime on financial performance. They should particularly understand any financial areas they can affect e.g. productivity, expenses, customer service, or waste.
12. Value People’s Ideas
Most employees have many ideas to improve their work, but many see no evidence that their ideas are valued. Change that. Meet with employees and work teams to discuss openly and without judgment, issues, opportunities, and new ideas. Let people know that what they think is as important as what upper managers think. Have groups analyze and recommend solutions to their own problems. When possible have them implement their solutions themselves.
13. Encourage Group 360° Feedback
Get the work group together. Have each person write on the board or easel pad one response from each person to these two questions. Include yourself. (Don’t allow discussion or comments.)
“What do I do now that makes your job easier? This is something I should do more of.”
“What could I do that would make your job easier, i.e. what new action would you like me to take?”
After everyone is finished, ask the group to discuss what happened and ideas anyone has on what they plan to do with the new information.
14. Develop Careers
Develop a realistic and attainable career development plan that meets people’s personal desires, interests, and goals. Involve each person in customizing their job so they can do more of what they want — and less of what they don’t.
15. Reassess Training
Formal training is ideal for skill shortages but rarely useful for cultural and human issues. You might use some training money to bring people together to discuss their road blocks at work. Most road blocks are at the people level of culture, for example with issues around roles, authority, trust, communications, information, and relationships. The other big problem area is usually workflow systems. Use the Four-Step Decision Process to identify top issues and what to do.
16. Don’t Take Away Other People’s Problems or Ideas
A person with a problem is motivated to solve it, so don’t take it away from them. If a person has a suggestion, coach managers not to say, “I’ll look into it and get back to you.” Help them say, “That’s interesting. Let’s discuss how you can move on that.”
Try these “Coaching” questions that help people keep problems and ideas where they belong — with the person who cares about them and is motivated to act on them.
“Tell me more about the problem?”. . .“And what’s behind that?”
“Whose problem is it? Who suffers because of this?”
“Who else is affected by this problem?” . . . “How could you involve them?”
“Do we know what the problem costs us?”
“What will solving it save? (What is the value added?)”
“How does this fit with our plans?”
“Are you willing to take this on?”
“What can I do to help you move it along?”
17. Identify Who Has the Problem
The first step in problem solving is identifying who has the problem. For example while management might not like production line breakdowns, the people who really suffer from them are the production line operators. They’re the ones with the problems. A “problem employee” does not have the problem unless they are personally suffering from it. If they were, they’d probably have changed. Adjusting a situation so that “the person with the problem” actually experiences having a problem, may require unfamiliar supervisor creativity. Identifying who has the problem can be difficult. By definition the person with the problem is the one who is suffering physically, financially, or psychologically. That’s usually the person closest to the action.
18. Don’t Blame — Solve Problems
People don’t deliberately make mistakes. If something happens, get the person or people together and try to understand what happened. Make sure everybody understands that no problem happens in a vacuum, there is always a cause, usually something in the system, and you want to find out what that is so the problem won’t happen again. If people think you are looking to find blame, they won’t speak up and you won’t find out how to prevent similar future problems. In any case, a culture where people look to blame others is not the kind of culture you want. It is unproductive and fearful — not a winning workplace.
19. Post Vacancies
Post vacancies so that all employees can apply. Give all internal applicants who were unsuccessful, constructive feedback on their rating, and areas they could strengthen for next vacancy.
20. Involve Employees in Hiring
Involve employees in the selection and hiring of any new employees they will be working with. When teams own the bringing in of new members they are highly motivated to make that new member succeed. This not only cuts turnover, which is very expensive, but involving the full team actively demonstrates qualities you probably want throughout the company — such as teamwork, involvement, responsibility, and trust. When a potential new hire is interviewed by his or her future team, he or she sees that teamwork is valued. Many people seek that kind of a workplace. It may be a deciding factor in persuading top candidates to join.
21. Interview New Employees
Get to know new employees. Build relationships, find out what they liked and disliked about their previous jobs. Let them know you care. Use the information to improve your own workplace.
Think back to when you were a new hire, what worked well and what didn’t, what you would’ve liked, and how motivated you would have felt if senior managers had sat down with you one-on-one, mentoring you along your new path.
22. Hold Exit Interviews
Understand why employees leave. When exit interviews reveal undesired cultural patterns, flag these and discuss them with your managers.
Note: Historically the most common reason for people leaving is a poor relationship with their immediate supervisor. You might find that one of your supervisors or managers, while highly skilled technically, is not a good people manager.
You might discuss this with the HR manager, but remember that what people do is always a reflection of the company culture, which is largely established by the leaders’ actions. In this case, discuss with your management team what you might be doing that inadvertently supports the undesirable behavior.
Try not to see the person as the problem. Rather understand that the culture is supporting the problem behavior. To change the behavior, change the culture. When you do this, most “problem behavior” disappears.
23. Conduct Employee Surveys
I’m not a big supporter of surveys because most treat employees as objects by not involving them in the survey design or in how the results will be fed back. But you can use surveys to build openness and reinforce desired values. Keep in mind the Golden Rule of culture — if somebody is affected by a decision, they should be involved in it. Involve employees in designing the survey, and the managers and employees in deciding in advance how the data will be fed back to everyone and used. The survey process should pass the “bulletin board test.” Do not allow surveys that treat people as objects. That gives a poor cultural message.
24. Make Sure Decisions Pass “The Bulletin Board Test.”
Post on the bulletin board the process you will use to make important decision that affect employees. Decisions might include promotions, bonuses, vacation schedules, training, assignments, hiring, employee evaluations, or anything else that interests and affects people. If employees feel that a decision process is legitimate, they more willingly accept the final decision, even though they might not like it. Remind everyone that a good decision process always involves those affected by the decision.
25. Hold “Culture Meetings”
Holding Culture Meetings is a sophisticated thing to do, and many managers feel uncomfortable when they start these meetings, but the results can be quite spectacular. Some managers call these meetings “No-Agenda Meetings”, but there is an Agenda — Relationships. Tell your team ahead of time that you will have a meeting once a month for an hour and the subject of the meeting is, “How we work together, relationships, communications — what we might do to make this a better workplace.” Because most people are used to problem-solving meetings — and this is not a problem-solving meeting — they want to come up with ideas for actions. Assure them that this meetings to build understanding. Encourage open discussion, particularly people sharing their work experiences and what these meant.
After three or four meetings people will start to feel more comfortable sharing their experiences, while not rushing to action or conclusions. Meanwhile you’ll probably notice subtle but significant changes in how people are working together outside of the meetings. After six or so of these meetings, i.e. after six months, the group may be comfortable moving these discussions into their regular operations meetings.
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