Dawn Metcalfe is a workplace culture advisor and managing director at PDSi MEA. She is also the author of Managing the Matrix and The HardTalk Handbook
You don’t have to go far or talk to many people before you hear horror stories about the cultures they work in, especially in the startup community. Some of these are so bad they make it into the news: organisations where there is back-biting, lies, misogyny, racism and those where incompetence and politicking are allowed. How does this happen? Surely nobody sets out to create a culture where this is acceptable? Well, who knows? It certainly seems like some of the places we hear about know exactly what they’re doing and are only uncomfortable when found out. I wouldn’t want to work there but clearly some people do. We get the culture we allow. By allowing certain behaviours we’re creating a culture: the key is to do it with intent.
There are three steps and five levers involved in creating a culture. It’s not difficult but it is hard i.e. it involves answering difficult questions and doing things that make most people uncomfortable.
Step 1) Know what you want from the beginning and keep checking
First, know what you want. Even if you're one person or two you have a culture. Culture is the way we do things. It's how we behave when nobody is looking. As soon as you have three people in the company, things change and as the company grows, the chances of the culture developing in ways you don’t expect grow exponentially. Know what you want and what you don’t want and check in regularly that things are still as expected.
Step 2) Be clear about your expectations
Second, know the behaviours you want and what you won't accept and have a sliding scale of rewards and punishments agreed with a commitment to use these visibly. What behaviours will help you achieve your objectives? What behaviours will make that harder? Be really specific: it’s not enough to say you want transparency.
“Every meeting from senior leadership team to team leader level will end with an agreement on who is going to say what to whom about the meeting”
Instead of saying you want creativity, say:
“No meeting will take place unless an agenda with information has been sent 48 hours in advance and all participants will have…”
And then trust your people to manage the obvious exception, for example, there has been a disaster and they have a meeting without an agenda. If you can’t trust at least the team leaders and above to do that, then you have bigger problems and need to go to the third step.
3) Use the levers
Aristotle said “give me a lever long enough and I will move the world”. To move your culture, use every lever at your disposal to underline the message “that’s how we do/don’t do things around here” and help others to do the same. Think about all the decisions you make - every one of those has an impact on your culture. That’s what makes it hard, it’s not that there is nothing you can do, it is that everything you do, sends a message.
To make it easier, we think about particular points in time or things that all organisations do that have a strong influence on culture i.e. of levers. We have chosen these because experience has shown they score high in terms of impact, sustainability and longevity of message and low in terms of cost. The five levers are:
- How you hire
Who you end up with is a function of how you hire. Your employer brand is affected by it. And your onboarding tells new colleagues how big a gap there between what it is they were sold and the reality. How much time are you spending on it?
- What processes you enforce
Wherever you are in the hierarchy, some processes will apply to you. In most organisations many of the processes in place were created to deal with one bad apple or one paranoid person. If everyone in your organisation cannot explain the rationale behind your process then why is it there?
- What vision you share
Most senior leaders would be appalled to hear how the vision they lovingly crafted with their senior team is viewed by their people. At best, the vision statement is seen as evidence of delusion and, at worst, of collusion in deception. Make sure your vision is reflected in reality and everybody can think of at least three examples of it in action.
- How you manage and develop people
Who gets promoted, who gets pushed out, who gets to go on the cool training that gives you access to the senior people - all of this creates your culture. It tells people what you value. And what you think is dispensable.
- What you reward and punish
This is in many ways the most difficult lever because it involves people doing things they are not comfortable with and can get wrong very easily. Unfortunately, the most difficult lever is the most important in many ways because without it, behaviors reverts to the norm.
Training is not enough. You cannot change a culture simply by putting people through training (though that may be part of it). Instead, it has to permeate everything, every decision. That's a big change. So think in terms of levers.
It can be hard and sometimes uncomfortable - that’s because managing culture means managing behaviour - our own and other people’s - that why you get paid more! Middle management is crucial in creating and/or managing culture but, without genuine support from the top, they cannot do it. That said, everyone has a responsibility to the culture they work in and can make a difference.
You cannot create a “happiness culture” by giving people lessons in mindfulness or even free yoga. Instead, happiness is a result of people working in a culture where every sign points the same direction and they are happy with “the way things are done around here”.