Five tools that build corporate culture

The right culture can improve morale and boost the bottom line, big-time. Here’s how to get it

Written by Mark Wardell

When you walk in the doors of a great company, you can feel it right away. There’s electricity in the air. Everyone is going about their work with a sense of purpose and pride, working toward something they believe in and feel a part of. This is the outcome of a great company culture—and to an entrepreneur, it’s poetry in motion.

Culture is a set of shared values, goals and behaviours that bind people together in pursuit of a common goal. Yet, if you ask an entrepreneur whose firm has a great culture to explain it, she’ll likely struggle to do so. She may tell you about her outstanding staff or the amazing culture they share, yet be unable to explain how or why it works.

Often, that’s because a charismatic leader unwittingly shapes the culture by encouraging certain types of behaviour. But a business driven by one person can lose its way as it grows. And, should that leader move on, the culture may leave with him.

To avoid this, a culture must take on a life of its own, one built on a shared set of corporate values: principles intended to shape the behaviour of all stakeholders. These values help keep a company pointed in the right direction and, perhaps most important, help attract and identify the right employees. Without the right people, you won’t get anywhere.
But hiring well is not enough. After all, does Apple have better people than Google, or Walmart better people than General Electric? Of course not. Yet the cultures of these highly successful firms vary widely.

If you examine enough businesses, you’ll realize there is no one model for the best culture. But there is a common thread among great cultures: they all have “continuous improvement” as a key value. In such a culture of excellence, everyone takes an active interest in making the firm better tomorrow than it is today. Whether you want to build a culture that centres on sales, innovation or customer service, having continuous improvement as a core value will help take you there.

Reaching this happy state of affairs seems like a daunting challenge. But you have several tools at your disposal to help shift the odds in your favour.

You can nurture a great culture through five key influencers: physical environment, language, stories, symbols and rituals. These influencers deliver a deeper message to everyone at your firm: “This is how we do things here.” As you read the following descriptions, consider how you might apply these tools to define, communicate and ingrain these values at the core of your company culture.

Physical environment: If you were to walk into a dark grey room, would it make you feel different than if the room were bright yellow? What if it were messy and cluttered—or if it were neat and clean?

Our physical surroundings strongly influence our emotional state and behaviour, yet rarely do we give them a second thought. But some companies get it. Toyota is known for its fanatical attention to order and cleanliness, which supports the systematic, orderly behaviour of its employees.

The good news is that even a small start can have an impact. Something as simple as a fresh coat of paint can influence your employees to put more care into their work.

Language: Every subculture has its own language. A generational cohort or fans of a given sports team will subtly indoctrinate others in the subculture and encourage certain behaviours by using acronyms, key phrases and invented words. Think of an athlete high-fiving a teammate after a winning play to say, “Great job!”

One common tactic in business is creative renaming of job titles. For example, WestJet calls its share-owning employees “WestJet owners,” encouraging them to treat the airline and its customers with greater care.

Stories: Probably the strongest cultural influencer is a story that’s worth telling. People have told stories throughout the ages in order to keep ideas and values alive across the generations. Great stories become folklore and deeply influence a culture by being told and retold.

For example, the U.S. department-store chain Nordstrom is famous for superb customer service. As the story goes, in 1975, a customer walked into a Nordstrom store in Fairbanks, Alaska, and asked for a refund for his tires. An employee on the job for just two weeks gave the customer his money back, with no questions asked. The kicker? Nordstrom didn’t sell tires. The story has become legendary within the company, and leaves no doubt among new employees about Nordstrom’s commitment to customer service.

Symbols: Throughout history, organizations have used symbols to shape behaviour. They may use symbols as rewards, such as with Olympic medals, or to communicate important information, such as with traffic lights. But however they€˜re used, what matters is the message the symbols convey.

At 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, team members often stand by the side of the road sporting bright blue frizzy wigs and waving at the traffic. The wigs were originally part of a hockey-related PR stunt, but have taken on a much deeper meaning, reminding employees that the firm was founded on out-of-the-box thinking.

Rituals: These are established routines we follow in given situations. Shaking hands when meeting someone and going down on one knee when proposing marriage are classic examples. Rituals guide much of our lives, including our lives in the workplace.

Employees at one of our clients do a silly little dance whenever they exceed their production targets. What started as an employee’s joke has spread across the shop, turning into a bonding exercise tied to an important business objective.

Rituals need not be comical or complicated to be effective. One of my firm’s rituals is to devote part of each weekly team meeting to educating each other about something new. It’s a simple way to keep education at the forefront of our culture.

In the end, corporate culture is all about your people. Can you shape behaviour? Absolutely. But only if your employees buy in to what you’re trying to accomplish. You can’t ram it down their throats; you need to get them involved.

Often, the best ideas will show up on their own. In fact, they probably already exist within your firm. You just need to recognize and capture them. Otherwise, they may fade away as quickly as they show up.

A simple litmus test is to ask everyone involved: “Does this positively influence our company culture?” If the answer is, “Yes,” then the staff involved are more likely to act as internal champions, helping to promote positive cultural change.

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