What is a Positive Culture? And how do we bring it about?

As we established in a previous article (see https://crossways.com.au/what-is-culture/), organisational or corporate culture is all about the values and practices shared by the group. It’s about “the way we do things around here.”

This is not something to be taken lightly.

As we saw from the Global Human Capital Trends survey in 2015 conducted by Deloitte which taken was across 3,300 business in 106 countries, the number one issue globally for businesses was “Culture and Engagement.”

“Organisations are recognising the need to focus on culture and dramatically improve employee engagement as they face a looming crisis in engagement and retention” (p 3).

Because companies and businesses are now “naked,” meaning that social media and internet access is now exposing exactly what is going on inside all these places, culture is becoming much more exposed and relevant. It always has been relevant, but it’s just that now everyone can see it, not just those who happen to be working inside it.

Of course, this means that the leadership hierarchy are suddenly interested in culture too. It’s not just their products or services that are exposed to public scrutiny, it is now also their culture.

What is a Positive Culture?

We talk about a positive culture, but what is it exactly?

Well, we all certainly know what it’s not simply because we’ve either heard about it or worse still, painfully experienced it. Typically, there are individuals whose egos run rampant (and they are often the leaders) and they are often self-centred or are authoritarian or dictatorial and who engage in sarcasm, put-downs, criticisms and who are demanding, unreasonable, blunt and rude.

If they are not openly abrupt, then perhaps they are more sinister engaging in laying blame, being inconsistent and then taking all the credit for any good work conducted.

Consequently, individuals around them survive by forming clichés, engaging in gossip, innuendo and may, in fact, get on-side with the bully or ego to form an alliance of sorts in order to prevent themselves being knifed. The general atmosphere is tense, negative, oppressive and destructive. Productivity falls and morale is poor indeed and individual staff members are only concerned about watching their back, keeping their heads down and just trying to survive. How on earth the business actually gets done is a mystery.

On the other hand, a positive culture is one where the leadership is generally open, genuine and transparent where the intent is to be supportive and nurturing to allow individuals to feel free to make comment and have discussions where contributions are welcomed and where professional and personal development is encouraged. A positive culture is one that tends to be flexible to change and therefore adapts to meet the needs of its members in a dynamic and constantly changing world. With the combined energy of all its members, a positive culture can actively pursue the challenges of the future as well as make improved profit and increase productivity.

How do you create a positive culture?

Slowly.  As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is culture.

Culture change in my experience is somewhere around a 2 to 5 year program. That is of course, if the CEO or MD or leadership doesn’t change mid-stream and the company has to start all over again. What a waste. But we see it all the time. And does that blow culture out of the water? — you bet it does.

Irrespective, there are some critical steps to bringing about a positive culture.

1. Authentic Leadership

You may well have heard the saying that “The fish rots from the head.” Apparently, this proverb dates back to 1674 when it appeared in a treatise called “An Account of the Voyage to New England.” The proverb is based on the fact that fish do begin to spoil at the head first. Hence, as a figure of speech, any problem or issue in an organisation (including culture), can be traced back to the boss.

Now when it comes to culture, a colleague of mine reports that up to 60% of a company or organisation’s culture is determined by the leadership[1]

So, rotten or positive, the leadership is a critical factor in any organisation. Leaders therefore who are persons of integrity and who are regarded as persons of character are having a significant impact on any business. This means that they walk the talk, they practice what they preach, their actions speak louder than their words, they do what they say they are going to do and they follow up. As Dr Stephen Covey has said, “Credibility is the foundation of leadership. If we don’t believe in the messenger, we won’t believe the message.”

They are also open and honest in their communications. Kouzes and Poser[2] researched over two decades and across six continents and asked the key question “What values (personal traits or characteristics) do you look for and admire in your leader?” Respondents identified 225 different values, traits and characteristics. From 1987 through to 2002, the number one characteristic most admired characteristic was “honest;” consistently, 83% to 88% of people endorsed it as the foremost characteristic. Says something doesn’t it.

2. Clear Set of Values

Values are like lighthouses. They show the way. They guide the path. They provide the boundaries about what is permitted and what isn’t.

So what kind of values do companies adopt as being lighthouses? For example, they might include, “Excellence” (Striving for operational excellence and mastery), “Relentless” (We’re driven, motivated and dynamic), “Passionate” (We work with great people and together we’re playing to win), and “Authentic” (We’re the real deal – honest, genuine and respectful).

These values however, just don’t sit on a wall in the reception area or on a banner in the staff room. Importantly, there are two further steps for values.

Firstly, they must be translated into behaviours that everyone can see and observe. This makes them real and clearly draws the line in the sand as it were. Such behaviours are easily identified by people and not open to individual interpretation. They are clear and concise.  They can be measured. They can be witnessed and observed.

For instance, being authentic in a company could mean the following:

  • Frank and respectful conversations – honest in self-disclosure and owning up
  • Taking responsibility and owning up for behaviour and actions
  • Making decisions that are in the interests of the team and not self
  • Being consistent
  • Not putting off or missing opportunities
  • Having the courage to speak and act and not always taking the easy route
  • Do what you say, be reliable and follow up
  • Support each other and watch each other’s back

On the other hand, being the opposite and inauthentic could mean:

  • Keeping things to themselves
  • Laying blame, criticising, fault-finding, gossiping
  • Delaying or avoiding frank conversations with the right people
  • Acting with bias or with an agenda
  • Not following through
  • Being inconsistent
  • Being self-centred and not collaborative
  • Not taking feedback or ignoring feedback
  • Formation of silos, clichés and favourites

Secondly, these values and their associated behaviours need to be constantly reinforced right from the beginning with recruitment and staff induction processes. They need to be upheld in various meetings as well as in terms of the individual’s KPI’s and their staff appraisals. It is not good enough for a company or business to advertise their values in a blaze of colour and ceremony and then simply forget about the continual implementation and integration of those values.

Failure to effectively implement and embed the values in the organisation means that it blatantly sends a message that it’s all talk and no real action. I’ve certainly heard staff refer to such companies, and the head office in particular, as “bullshit castle.” Doesn’t do much for morale does it?

3. Recruit Well & Induct Well

I remember someone once telling me that it is easier to recruit “nice” people rather than trying to train “niceness.” In fact, I’d go further and assert that “niceness” can’t be taught. Yes, if individuals are keen to improve and grow, it is always probable that they can alter their attitude and behaviour and become “nicer.”

However, if people aren’t nice in the first place, then don’t expect that they are going to take your cue and your advice and suddenly become less “high maintenance,” less difficult and less self-centred.

Of course, individuals are always on their best behaviour at the selection interview, so referee reports are vital in this regard (although I’ve know some previous employers to lie, for various reasons), but there is also the probation period for three or six months to allow you to take a closer look at them and how they interact.

If they happen to slip through this net, then unfortunately, we have to performance their behaviour and have weekly conversations until they either change or leave. However, clear sets of behaviours makes these conversations easier.

Remember, that one rotten apple will spoil the barrel. Make no mistake about it.

Once the individual has been recruited, it’s critical to follow-up what has been said in the interview with a strong induction process that elaborates on the culture as well as the values and behaviours being espoused. There needs to be a clear message about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and how culture is very much the lifeblood of the organisation and that detours will not be tolerated.

4. Reward and Recognition

I remember reading in a doctor’s surgery years ago an article titled “The Power of Praise.”  It doesn’t really matter whether we are talking about child rearing, coaching a sports team, leading a band of volunteers, or running a company, a basic human need according to the psychologist William James is that of recognition; “The deepest human desire is to be appreciated.”

 If we want good behaviour to continue, we need to reward it. Basic, but simple. But it isn’t it interesting how so often we forget the basics?

There are a number of ways that I have seen businesses reward the upholding of the values and behaviours that they espouse to be critical within their culture.

For example, one company I visited has a wall with a large screen mounted in the middle showing various photos of staff dinners, socials and get-togethers, but more importantly, staff place large coloured post-its on the wall and around the screen to highlight any positive behaviours and actions that they have experienced by other staff. At the end of the month, the senior leadership team collect all of these post-its and select the employee of the month who is deemed to have upheld the company culture. They are rewarded with vouchers, movie tickets, dinners and the like. There are other staff who are highly commended and who receive other rewards. Interestingly, probably the most powerful reward is the actual certificate that staff receive that they can proudly display around their desk or work area.

Another company I’m involved with and that I consult to, ask staff to fill out a sheet highlighting the nature of the positive behaviour or good deed that has been done and that is then sent to the HR manager so that similar awards can be given out at the end of the month at a staff social drinks and gathering.

This kind of continuing activity sends a clear and constant message that a positive culture is valued.

By the way, be prepared to ensure that these values and the accompanying behaviours are also part of the Performance Appraisal system for the company. Yes, you might rate staff on their job performance, but you must also rate them on their “cultural performance.”

5. A Training Academy

All of your staff have had training in their respective technical skills and knowledge typically called “hard skills,” whether that be formally at a university, training college or via a combination of in-service, on-the-job or apprenticeship training. They excel at being accountants, engineers, designers, carpenters, maintenance men or women, receptionists, sales persons, human resource officers and so on.

However, these hard skills though, don’t make for a positive culture.

Instead, it’s the so-called “soft skills” that help create a positive culture. Courses on listening skills, the art of communication, emotional intelligence, how to deal with conflict, how to deal with difficult people, how to delegate, and how to be assertive are all courses that help produce a cultural change.

I find it ironical that we spend so much time training people in the hard skills, but we completely disregard the soft skills (which are actually hard!).

Somehow, we’re all supposed to have great listening skills and high emotional intelligence. So where are we supposed to have gotten these skills exactly? If we didn’t get it from our parents and family life, where are we supposed to learn them?

Of course, some companies believe that it is not their responsibility to be training in these areas. Others say that there’s no point in training in soft skills because staff only end up leaving anyway.

What short-sightedness.

If you want a positive culture be prepared to train in it. Then hold people accountable.

Don’t make the mistake too of simply providing training and then somehow “hoping” that the training sticks! Who follows up on the training? Are there refresher courses? Is there a development plan for individuals which holds them accountable? Failure to follow up training is simply wasting the corporate’s dollar.

6. 360 Assessments

Is your leadership and management group prepared to be open to feedback? Remember that “feedback is the breakfast of champions.” There is nothing like feedback to the leadership group to assist them to grow and become more effective leaders who are bringing about a positive culture.

Are the leadership group prepared to be open and vulnerable? It says volumes about any organisation which is prepared to look at itself including it’s top management.

Not only is it about individual 360 assessments (perhaps on a 12 or 24 month rotational basis), but it is about the whole organisation having the courage to undertake climate surveys with all staff. How do staff overall see the company or business? Where are the areas for improvement? What do they need to keep doing? What do they need to stop doing?

In summary, there you have it.

However, one last thing. There needs to be a driver for this cultural change or indeed, if the culture is already present, then who is the watch-keeper who ensures that it all keeps on track?  Without a driver or a champion, the cultural shift will not happen or else will fall away.

[1] Dr John Wood, “Culture and Coaching,” presentation to the Australian Psychological Society, Interest Group on Coaching Psychology, 22 November, 2006

[2] J.M. Kouzes & B.Z. Posner (2002), “Leadership Challenge.” Jossey-Bass