When you have problems in your organization it’s easy to focus on the obvious things such as individual people or processes. But what if the problem you’re facing is grander in scale than you first think? What if addressing one overarching issue rather than all of the obvious symptomatic issues could improve all areas of your business? There is such an item: company culture.

Recognizing the signs of an unhealthy culture

Take a look at the following list and see how many of these challenges resonate with you:

  1. Low engagement. Does it feel like no one cares about the outcome of what they are doing or what the company is doing as a whole? Do people put in a half-hearted effort or call in sick a lot?
  2. Poor internal communication and lack of trust. Do you have silos — where one group is at odds with another and information isn’t shared the way it should be?
  3. Micromanagement. Do you or other managers feel that you have to tightly manage your people or you won’t get the results you desire?
  4. Poor management and leadership. Are people confused as to what is expected of them? Do your leaders shift targets and keep their teammates guessing? Do they exhibit favoritism in applying rules and policies? Do any of your managers motivate with fear?
  5. Office gossip. Do you employ people that have a specialty in making small problems big problems? Are people afraid to speak up appropriately so instead they communicate subversively?
  6. Scapegoating. Do people blame others for their failings rather than owning their own mistakes?
  7. Turnover. Are you losing people that you would rather not lose? Do you find yourself throwing money and perks at people in order to entice them to stay? Do you give a lot of offer letters but people choose other companies to work for?

If you answered yes to any of the above, there’s a good chance you are suffering from a culture problem.

Engaged employees do better work and act as better teammates because they care about the company and the end results.Click To Tweet

What it is and why you should care — a lot

Company culture is more than free food and ping-pong tables. In the book I’m writing on culture, I discuss that creating a great culture means being healthy in the following six key areas:

  1. Leadership. This isn’t just what your leaders say, it’s what they do and who they are. To have a great culture you need great leaders, not just great managers.
  2. Core values. Core values are the values that are shared by all of your employees. They define your company; everything you do should use your core values as a litmus test and everyone you hire must share your core values.
  3. Communication. Communication needs to flow freely in all directions. Information should not be hoarded for power, and managers shouldn’t use secrecy to protect their egos.
  4. Accountability. People need to clearly understand what is required of them, how they are measured, and how what they do fits in with the overall goals of the organization.
  5. Camaraderie. People want to feel part of a tribe. When they feel that their coworkers are friends or at least comrades-in-arms, rather than obstacles that must be worked around, they are more engaged, productive and communicative.
  6. Environment. Pool tables, free food and the best tools have their place. People want to work in an environment where they feel comfortable and where they can be proud to bring a spouse to visit.

Investing in a healthy culture pays you back — over and over. A company with a healthy culture enjoys many advantages, including:

  • High levels of engagement. If you take a “best places to work survey,” you will find that most of the analysis boils down to employee engagement. Engaged employees do better work and act as better teammates because they care about the company and the end results.
  • Positive morale. Stress is a killer and employees under stress simply don’t function at their best. With a healthy culture, even the most trying events are handled well because everyone functions as a team.
  • Exceptional customer service. When employees are happy and engaged, it comes out in how they treat your customers.
  • Better employee retention and recruitment. This may be the single most important piece of all — when you have a healthy culture great employees stay and superstars come looking for you!

Creating a healthy culture

Creating a healthy culture takes planning and a lot of work; don’t think you can put in a few new perks and life will suddenly be great. Once your culture starts improving, your employees will take some ownership of it and help make it great, but it will take constant attention from the top.

In essence, to create a great culture you have to solve these issues:

  • People want to feel that what they do matters and that they are valued.
  • People want to belong to something bigger than themselves.
  • People want to enjoy what they do and who they do it with.

I could fill a book on what to do to improve your culture (actually, I am doing just that), but in the interest of space I encourage you to consider the following items:

  1. Be deliberate. If you aren’t the pilot, you’re a passenger. You have a culture whether or not you create it deliberately, and I promise you that if it’s not deliberate it will be broken.
  2. Define, share and live your core values. The core values are your North Star — they guide every decision that you make. If you have core values today, are they the right values? Do you live them? Does management live them, or do they talk about them and expect others to live them? Once you’ve defined your core values, everyone needs to know them — message them until you’re blue in the face. Ask questions around them to prospective hires and use them in your employee evaluations. Talk about them all the time and LIVE THEM.
  3. Focus on communication and transparency. At our company we have quarterly company breakfasts where each manager gets up and discusses their successes and failures from the last quarter as well as their plans for the coming quarter. I was even convinced to share high-level financials in my quarterly meetings. It was very uncomfortable at first, but it has had an amazing effect on our company because people feel more part of the team than cogs in a machine.
    We also have company-wide huddles every Thursday so that we are always communicating. A good friend and business coach told me, “It’s just like talking to kids — they have to hear it seven times to hear it once.” I believe it’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate. Don’t let employees guess, because they will get it wrong, and their guesses will usually be much worse than reality.
  4. Hire the right people, and weed out the bad culture fits. This takes courage and fortitude. Have you kept an employee that was bad for your culture because they were good at their job? How did that end up for you? Every single time I’ve done that it ended poorly. Remember, you are building a tribe, and not every person is suited for every tribe. Trust me, the rewards for cultivating the right people that share your core values are HUGE!
  5. Give everyone goals. We call them “rocks,” and they are assigned quarterly. This gives people something bigger to focus on and grow with beyond their day-to-day activities. At my company, employee rocks are tied to department rocks, which are tied to the overall quarterly objectives of the company so that everyone is rowing in the same direction.
  6. Let everyone know how they are evaluated. Don’t make your employees guess as to whether or not they are doing a good job. We use scorecards at the leadership team level, the department level and the individual level so that everyone knows how they are measured and exactly where they stand. The old axiom “that which gets measured gets done” applies.

I mentioned earlier taking a “great places to work” survey. This requires some effort on your part (the majority of your employees will need to participate in an anonymous survey), and it may cost you a few bucks, but it’s one of the quickest ways to get a feel for your culture and where you can improve. You might also learn about some things you are doing really well, so that you can keep doing them.

And finally, a bit of parting advice: celebrate your successes. In the past, I have been so focused on fixing what was wrong that I failed to celebrate our victories. This created unnecessary negativity across the entire organization and affected the company’s self-image. Don’t ignore what needs to be changed, but feel free to beat your chest about what you are doing well!

Remember, creating a healthy culture is about creating a tribe. When your culture is strong you will keep great employees, attract new superstars and get more productivity out of everyone. Oh yeah, you’ll probably also enjoy your job a whole lot more too. 

James Foxall

James Foxall

James Foxall is President & CEO of Tigerpaw Software, a leader in providing complete business automation for technology providers. In his current role as President and CEO, James provides the vision and management to keep Tigerpaw focused on its customers and properly serving its markets. James has a Masters degree in Business Administration and a BS degree in Management of Information Systems. Devoted to creating better businesses through technology, James has written 15 books, which have been published in over a dozen languages around the world. He is considered an authority on business process improvement, and serves the business community as an international speaker on automating business processes and improving company culture.