How to Cultivate and Sustain a Healthy Organizational Culture

Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game–—it is the game. In the end, an organization is no more than the collective capacity of its people to create value~ Lou Gerstner, former chairman of IBM

Culture matters. Culture is recognized as such a significant factor in the success of organizations that Fortune’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” report is based primarily on information employees anonymously report about their workplace culture. Today’s professionals are making decisions about the organizations they work for and the companies they buy from based on the values they feel those companies represent.

Organizations can no longer count on competitive salaries alone to attract and retain top talent. If fact, Forbes reported in April 2016 that millennial workers would be willing to give up $7,600 in salary to work in job that provided a better environment and quality of work life!

Once we acknowledge that culture is critical to organizational success, the next challenge it to define this somewhat ambiguous term. Many definitions are available to describe culture. Academically, culture is defined as “the predominant beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviors, and practices that are characteristic of a group of people”. In practical terms, organizational culture describes the environment in which people work and the influence it has on how they think, act, and experience work.

In healthy organizational cultures, there is a clear understanding of what the cultural values and norms are and the environment brings out the best in people and teams. In unhealthy organizational cultures, norms and practices are not well known or are confusing, inconsistent, or not reinforced. This type of environment often brings out the worst in people and teams creating dysfunction, tension, and stress. According to a report by TruPath, 64% of employees feel like they don’t have a healthy work culture and that their work environment is impeding their ability to succeed.

One misperception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, and at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This involves many moments of high-candor feedback and uncomfortable truth telling when they confront the gap between where the team is and where wants to be.

Although many factors influence culture, organizational cultures primarily reflect their leaders. Leaders have a powerful influence on culture through their strategies, practices, values, leadership style, and example. Whether you are aware of it or not, team members are observing how you speak and act, they are watching how you handle tough situations, and most importantly taking note of the values you embody. Therefore, as a leader it’s essential to be attentive to the types of behaviors and attitudes you are engendering and whether they are desirable or undesirable.

Culture can be built by design or default. In other words, culture can either be built in a purposeful way or left to chance. Leaders play a key role in building and sustaining cultures. Building culture by design takes intelligent and focused work.

Here are 10 ways to cultivate and sustain a healthy organizational culture:

1. Make strategy and culture important leadership priorities and align them.

2. Evaluate it. Develop a clear understanding of the present culture, including healthy and unhealthy attributes.

3. Don’t confuse culture with a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. A strong culture encourages healthy debate, supports differences in how team members view the world, and rewards innovative thinking rather than squelching it.

4. Engage employees in the cultural ideals you most want to cultivate through education and consistent and sustained communication.

5. Be the example. Role model desired behaviors.

6. Use storytelling to highlight and reinforce culture.

7. Recognize and reward desired behaviors and practices – and do this often.

8. Recruit and train for culture at all levels of the organization.

9. Encourage ownership. Appoint a cross-functional and cross-level culture team that stewards organizational values.

10. Consistently monitor and manage the culture.

Leaders throughout your organization need to understand the importance of strategy and culture in building a successful organization and make both a top priority in their decision-making and practices. The more leaders can create strategies that achieve the desired results while also creating a great place to work and conduct business, the more likely it is that a healthy culture will be created.

The most effective leaders create the conditions necessary for team members to grow and thrive. They create an environment that is safe and connected where strong emotional bonds are formed and shared values are honored.

Culture is a precious resource that must be managed carefully. Even a strong culture is vulnerable and can be damaged or lost entirely if leaders are not aware of its value and are not keeping a vigilant watch over potentially destructive practices, attitudes, or events. When culture is strong and driving the right behaviors, it is among the greatest asset an organization can have, creating a motivating and inspiring environment for team members to succeed and organizational goals to be realized.

Grow with purpose.


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