In the previous post, I covered the concept of company culture: what it is and why it’s important to develop one that supports your company goals.

But what if your culture is a mass of confusing or contradictory statements—or worse, so toxic that managers and staff jump ship on a regular basis? Is it possible to course-correct a negative culture in mid-stream?

Yes, but it won’t be easy. A new business has the opportunity create its culture from scratch, but an existing company will be fighting an uphill battle against the tendency to keep the status quo—even if no one is particularly happy with it. As Susan M. Heathfield noted in How to Change and Transform Your Company Culture, “People are comfortable with the current culture. For people to consider culture change, usually a significant event must occur. An event that rocks their world such as flirting with bankruptcy, a significant loss of sales and customers, or losing a million dollars, might get people’s attention.”

But that’s not to say it can’t be done. My work with various companies over the years who were suffering from “toxic culture syndrome” has highlighted three important steps on the path to “culture course correction.”

  1. Understand the culture currently in place.
  2. Identify the culture you want going forward.
  3. Implement the needed changes to create that culture.

Is it worth all the effort?

Absolutely, according to the Entrepreneur’s Corporate Culture article. “Whether written as a mission statement, spoken or merely understood, corporate culture describes and governs the ways a company’s owners and employees think, feel and act… your corporate culture plays a big role in determining how well your business will do.”

Create a healthy, productive culture and your business will thrive. Encourage an atmosphere of negativity, fear and infighting, and your business will suffer.

Step 1: Understand the culture currently in place.

Before changes can be made, you have to understand the philosophy that drives the business now. What is the atmosphere that exists throughout your company? In Why Corporate Culture Is Becoming Even More Important, Larry Alton recommends performing a “culture audit. Essentially, this is a way to evaluate where your culture currently stands, see what (if anything) is missing, and establish a plan to make corrections.”

What is the atmosphere that pervades your company? Do people seem happy to be there, excited about their work, and, for the most part, enjoy a collegial relationship with their fellow employees? Or are turf wars a regular occurrence? Is your turnover rate steadily increasing? Is your HR department basically a revolving door as people join then exit your company?

Solicit input from your employees to get their perspectives, using any combination of roundtable meetings, surveys or even casual conversations. What do they think matters to the higher-ups—their immediate bosses and all the way up your office? The answers may surprise and enlighten you as to how the current culture is missing the mark.

What about your customer base? What is their perception of your business? How do they feel they are treated? Why do they patronize your business, and are their reasons the ones that you want as their basis for that decision? What types of complaints or comments does your customer service team hear on a regular basis?

Finally, how do you define your company? What is your driving force, your priorities, the way you measure success? What is your goal or mission statement? And how do you judge the worth of the people who work for you?

It’s not easy to get answers to these questions, since it requires you to step outside your current role and assume that of an objective third party. If you find it challenging, or if your people or customers seem unwilling to be honest, then consider using a business consultant who, as a neutral third party, can not only gather the information you need but also help you begin your culture improvement process.

Step 2: Identify the culture you want going forward.

You might be able to point to what you don’t like about the current culture, but do you know what you want? In her article, Heathfield lists several questions that may help provide the answers:

  • What are the five most important values you would like to see represented in your organizational culture?
  • Are these values compatible with your current organizational culture?
  • Do they exist now?
  • If not, why not? If they are so important, why are you not attaining these values?

When you are developing your new and improved culture, keep in mind the six important characteristics of successful corporate cultures as defined by Harvard Business Review, listed in Corporate Culture Investopedia—Characteristics of Successful Corporate Cultures.

Vision — Your mission statement, message or manifesto that is shared with everyone, from employees and customers to the media and the world at large.

Values — The mentalities and perspectives, ethics and mores that are needed to achieve the vision.

Practices — The tangible methods and procedures to be followed to implement the values.

People — The recruitment and retention process that supports and enhances the culture.

Narrative — The company story: how it came to be, why it came to be and who the key players are.

Place — Broadly, where the company is located geographically, and more narrowly, the actual company site and how it relates to the culture.

As you work through each one of the six characteristics, list what you want to see in terms of a new and improved culture.

Step 3: Implement the changes to create that culture.

Implementing the change starts with you. You need to make a wholehearted commitment to jettisoning the ways of the past and then demonstrate that commitment to change on a daily basis. Only then can you get everyone — from top-level managers down through the ranks of employees — on board with new policies and culture.

In Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate, Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule wrote “culture change can’t be achieved through top-down mandate… [it] needs to happen through a movement, not a mandate… culture change only happens when people take action.”

This requires an alignment between values and behavior, according to TriNet’s article, Culture is a Business Issue. “Companies with successful cultures are clear about their purpose, what they stand for, what they believe in, whom their customers are and whom they want to become. Additionally, it is critical that the products, policies and behaviors of the organization align with the stated values. A company’s values should do more than just live inside a PowerPoint. They should be brought to life in the people, events, products, space and the stories that are told. They should be used in selecting the right talent and in managing and developing that talent.”

Equally important, said Alton, is to ensure that everyone, from current employees to new hires, understands that culture. Have a measure in place to evaluate how well that culture is being followed — by you as well as everyone else at the company. In other words, make sure that you and your people “walk the talk” in terms of the principles of your culture.

The Wharton @ Work article, Culture as Culprit: Four Steps to Effective Change, shared insights from Wharton management professor Larry Hrebiniak on making effective and long-lasting culture changes at your company. Hrebiniak said to start with structure and process, looking at the procedures currently in place to evaluate if they support or inhibit the new culture you want to establish.

Rotate people within the company as well as bring in fresh blood to help blow away some of the cobwebs still remaining. Use incentives to reward adherence to the new culture’s tenets and monitor the change through feedback and other mechanisms. All these strategies will help ensure that adjustments are made to steadily improve the process and ultimately help keep your culture ship on the right course.


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