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3 Ways to Simplify Your Company Culture and Build Trust Resolving to simplify your company culture is a great first step toward meeting your 2016 goals.

By Anka Wittenberg Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Company Culture, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.

The 2015 books are closed and the 2016 kickoff meetings have concluded. Now is the perfect time to take one final look at what went well last year and what we could have done better. It's also a great time to review our 2016 priorities. Which areas demand better performance? Which programs will we emphasize in the coming months?

Simplification is a major initiative for many organizations, including SAP. By reducing complexity and striving for simplicity, we know that companies can develop new opportunities for competitive advantage. In contrast, firms that cling to complex processes, structures, and tools hold themselves back. In a recent Knowledge@Wharton study, 74 percent of respondents said that complexity hurts their ability to meet goals.

And the cost of complexity is significant. Authors Simon Collinson and Melvin Jay characterize complexity as one of the biggest challenges facing modern business. They write that complexity "is slowing companies down, costing them on average 10 percent of their profits and harming employee morale."

Related: Why Company Culture Is More Important Than Ever

Complexity also has a negative impact on employees. Studies have shown that trust, diversity, and innovation suffer when employees are overwhelmed by complexity. In contrast, trusted leaders experience greater innovation and better performance. Yet only four in 10 employees trust their boss. I view this as a huge gap that can potentially shrink when we reduce complexity.

Leading by example.

Some leading executives of highly innovative companies clearly understand the need to share their authentic selves as a way to build trust. In 2014, Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly came out in an opinion piece published in Bloomberg Businessweek. In an essay advocating for human rights, Cook said he set aside his privacy and publicly declared that he is gay in the hopes that he could help others who might be struggling.

Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote movingly about her grief over the death of her husband Dave last year. In discussing her painful loss, she talked about how she decided to be open about her feelings with employees. "I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in," Sandberg wrote on Facebook. "And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt."

Closer to home, our own SAP CEO Bill McDermott recently suffered an injury that led to the loss of his left eye. He reached out to SAP employees and spoke from the heart about the accident, his gratitude to family and colleagues and his optimism about the future. SAP employees responded with heartfelt wishes for his recovery, many inspired by his willingness to be so open about such a tragic accident. The tragedy inspired him to increase his focus on individualized healthcare and the role SAP might play in making it better -- and simpler -- for people around the world.

Related: What Company Culture Is Really About

Getting started on simplification.

These executives turned difficult situations into opportunities to build trust. But you don't need a tragedy to begin simplifying your company culture. Why not consider ways to begin simplifying your corporate culture as one of your key 2016 initiatives?

Let's define our terms. A simplified corporate culture strives to:

  • Do things in the way that creates the most value and engagement for all, with the least effort for all
  • Make it easier for people to be their best and do great work

According to a report by The Jensen Group, a simpler environment gives employees the power to get their work done, to make a difference, and to control their own destiny. Simpler workplace cultures also make it easier for employees to do their best and be their best selves. But how can you create an ideal balance of deep trust, real inclusion and maximum engagement within your organization?

Related: Why Your Company Culture Needs to Be a Reflection of You

There are three key steps that can help you simplify the company culture:

  1. Develop senior executive alignment and commitment to the cause. Business leaders need to embrace the idea that ease of use and ease of effort can help create corporate return on investment. For example, at SAP, we have a shared aspiration to "make the world run better and improve people's lives." This is a bold but simple statement - and a sincere goal -- that is at the heart of everything we do and every business decision we make. Our executives and leaders are unified behind this goal. It is repeated and shared often so there is no doubt about our commitment.
  2. Train mid-level managers to make simplicity for all a priority. Ensuring that managers on the frontline understand their role in simplifying, communicating, and exemplifying the organization's messages and goals is critical. At SAP, we are proud of the training we offer to address the needs of those colleagues. There is often no greater representative of a group's goals than the mid-level manager with whom you interact on a day-to-day basis.
  3. Design work tools, communication, training, and development using simplicity criteria. SAP's own CEO, Bill McDermott, sets the tone for simplified communication -- starting with our internal communication and meetings. He rarely relies on typical tools such as PowerPoint to share a message. Instead, Bill prefers to speak directly to audiences when possible (often via global broadcasts), engage in open Q&A sessions, or to send a simple one-paragraph mail -- no "bells and whistles." We offer programs to help colleagues break messaging down to its most basic components, conduct "design thinking" training to enable out-of-the-box approaches to innovation and encourage simple storytelling whenever possible. While there's still work to be done, I'm proud of my company's commitment to be more engaged "human to human" -- and less reliant on slides or fancy presentations that can often complicate things.

Related: 10 Examples of Companies With Fantastic Cultures

Simplification won't happen overnight, but with proper planning and commitment, you can begin moving your organization in the right direction. Resolving to simplify your company culture is a great first step toward meeting your 2016 goals.

Anka Wittenberg

Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at SAP

Anka Wittenberg, inspired by purposeful leadership, is Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at SAP. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter at @WittenbergAnka.

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