Leaders often feel responsible for cultivating or preserving a high-performing culture, but what role does the traditional employee have in shaping culture? Too often, shaping culture is seen as an activity for the “powers that be,” and the thought is reinforced when leaders withdraw to private meeting rooms to identify goals, determine the right values for the organization, and decide what priorities and behaviors employees should follow. “Shaping culture is high-level work, and employees just need to fall in line.”
We recognize that the last sentence sounds terrible, but it’s the sentiment that we often hear from employees who aren’t invited and empowered to be part of shaping culture. Unsurprisingly, there are significant consequences when employees don’t see the organization as theirs to shape: organizational commitment wanes and work becomes more transactional. As one battered and isolated employee said, “It’s a job; they pay me, so I go.” Why would anyone engage in work deeply when we don’t feel like our voice or thoughts matter?
This is one of the reasons why we like Daniel Coyle’s definition of culture presented in his book “The Culture Code.”
“A set of living relationships working toward a shared goal”
With that definition in play, it’s easier to see why great company culture is built and reinforced by engaging all people in pursuing organizational goals. Let’s explore how shaping culture becomes an activity for everyone.
Every organization has a set of goals, which are likely articulated in its values, vision, mission, and current strategic plan. Their values reflect goals about who they want to be. Their vision reflects goals about where they want to go. The mission reflects goals about why they exist. Their current strategic plan reflects goals that will bridge the gap between where they are now and their values, vision, and mission.
We believe a healthy process will include broad employee participation in the original articulation of these goals and periodic review of these ideas. In other words, these goals are “shared” because they are created and continually affirmed together. Similarly, when organizational interviewing processes embed discussion of these goals, they become “shared” as applicants confirm they hold beliefs that honor values, vision, and mission concepts and commit to pursuing the objectives in the strategic plan.
But that’s not the entire story of culture. As people enter an organization and form relationships, they bring their own thoughts about what key cultural concepts mean. They begin expressing those thoughts in their daily interactions with each other, stakeholders, and customers.
Like shared goals, these living relationships are vital because they allow key cultural concepts to be redefined and reimagined over the life of an organization. This may lead to an affirmation of traditional ideas with an eye toward a modernized world, and it may lead to the articulation of new cultural concepts that honor a changing workforce.
A Peak Behind the Ethos Curtain
Perhaps an example from our own experience will help. “Image” is one of the cultural concepts that we honor at Ethos. For us, that means we show up in spaces with professionalism. When Becky first joined Ethos in 2009, that primarily meant going to client sites in formal business attire. When David joined us in 2017, we shifted to a business casual style.
If “Image” is part of the Ethos culture, how could that shift be acceptable? Simply stated, the world around us had changed, and our team had changed. We had more diverse clients, many of whom wore business casual attire as the idea of professional dress evolved. Throw in our team’s preferences, and we suddenly had a moment where we both affirmed a cultural idea AND updated its definition.
Reflection: How long has it been since you revisited key culture concepts in your organization? What actions can you take to ensure your culture reflects the influence of shared goals and living relationships?