Every organization has a culture. Some are more positive than others. Schools and religious organizations have fairly positive and stimulating cultures. Even gangs have cultures that, while positive to their members, are generally considered by the rest of society as negative.
Your company has a culture too. Is it positive or negative? Before getting into that, perhaps it's appropriate at this point to define just what a corporate culture is. There are many definitions. My preferred definition is: Culture is the sum total of everything that has been and continues to be on going in an organization.
Knowing the various aspects of your culture can clearly guide you and your employees to a better understanding of your goals, visions, and approaches to increased productivity, perhaps with the use of valuable technology. Do you believe in a relaxed atmosphere? Is it your belief that for greater productivity, the company atmosphere must be serious? Or are you somewhere in between?
Culture influences the way we think, what we do, how we work, and what is acceptable in the company environment. That said, what are some of the many factors involved in building, assessing, and understanding culture? Three groups of attributes of a corporate culture stand out:
- Beliefs, stories, and experiences: When a new hire begins, what are the stories he is told about the organization? About the people? About past events? What was made those events noteworthy? Who are the company heroes and what have they accomplished that garnered them such a positive reputation that it deserves to be respected? More importantly, can these behaviors be emulated by others?
- Goals, norms, and history: "If you don't know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else!" Anecdotal surveys show that the overwhelming majority of employees are clueless about their overall company goals. While it's true that most know they should do a good job, many are unclear about the specifics and the nuances. Sure, the goal of the Ford Motor Company is to make cars, the local mattress factory to produce bedding, and the accounting company to prepare your tax returns. But to what degree of quality? And what about customer service? Where in the company environmental equation does that fit?
Surprisingly, these questions occasionally go unanswered. To help the employee better understand the culture, the entrepreneur and the employees all need to understand specifically where the organization is going, how it will get there, by when, and with what degree of quality and success. Without this knowledge, the company is doomed to be an underperformer or possibly to fail.
Norms define and describe what is acceptable: "the way things are done around here" from the simple to the complex. The former may basically include how early you have your staff come to work in the morning or how late they remain past 5 pm. The complex may involve whether to work as a highly productive individual or to work together as an accomplished team (collaboratively or competitively?). Not knowing the difference can easily create problems for the individual and the work unit.
History, like experience, provides a basis for behavior. It helps employees distinguish between what has been tried and succeeded and those things that were attempted but failed; it allows workers to move beyond past failures through to innovation and achievement. History can serve as a foundation or jumping off point to launch into new ventures or new procedures and policies. It helps the innovator deal with complainers who say, "We already tried that.." Supported by history, the employee can point out how this newest attempt will differ from and alter the past.
- Symbols, values, rituals: Symbols are crucial icons or signs that tell the observer, visitor, and even the employees something about the organization. Nameplates and logos on doors, windows, walls, and stationery tell every person seeing them something about the company. These symbols can be as concrete as a name and as abstract as cleanliness, high tech, modernity, or quality. They reveal to all a measure of the company story. Something as simple as names on cubicles says that even though we may be cubby-holed, the company believes that people are important. A sparkling floor says that the company takes pride in its appearance and providing a clean environment for all workers.
One reason many people chose to work in an organization is because of its values: honesty, pride, concern for others, independence, positive reinforcement for a job well done or well begun. These values may be unwritten but, nevertheless, are still potent qualities that exist to inform employees about the company, especially when a clash of values occurs. Is it more important, for example, to get products/ information/services out the door? Is it more valuable to complete one polished product or many that are in great shape but dull in appearance? The confusion can lead to diminished performance.
Rituals are traditions or ceremonies that occur on a regular basis. Quite often, organizations miss opportunities to use rituals to improve morale. Simple events such as honoring birthdays, anniversaries, important successes, or positive announcements all serve as occasions for the company to say, "We value you and we want to honor or acknowledge you and your accomplishments." These events can be inexpensively acknowledged with lunches, cakes, coffee or cards. There are many low-cost methods (expensive ones, too!) of telling employees how important they are. The results can be very powerful!
By reviewing these attributes of corporate culture, an empowering entrepreneur can better assess the current status of an organization with an eye to modifying or eliminating the parts that are dysfunctional or impractical, then replacing them with qualities that will improve your working environment, productivity, and employee satisfaction. Then your culture will be positive, too!
Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.