Closing the culture gap – Part 1

The why and how behind trying to shape a company culture

A while ago I posed a question about company culture as a poll on LinkedIn because I wanted to test the water for a notion that has been with me for a while. According to my own experience and some stories I heard from colleagues and friends, what companies aspire to in terms of their corporate culture and their values does often not seem to fit to what the day-to-day experience is when you actually work there. I wanted to understand if this gap is a wider-spread problem, if so why the gap occurs, and how it can be addressed. Claudia Salowski kindly offered to co-create and quickly we noticed that the topic has enough depth and breadth for more than just one article. So we are kicking off a series of short articles to share our own experience and thinking but also external input with you, hoping that you can take some insights and inspiration from this.

This gap that gave the village of Gjogv on the Faroe islands its name has been used as a natural harbour for generations.

The post with the culture gap poll got 74 votes in total, 21 reactions (like/applause) and 7 comments so we take it that the topic is of some relevance. About two thirds of people who replied stated that the culture they experienced in their career in the companies they worked for “very rarely” or “never” fit to the one described on the corporate website. This lends evidence to the notion that there could indeed be a pain point. Some people also reached out and offered to help by giving their own perspective, so we took them up on their offers and had conversations with them to find out more and create a rounded picture of the topic. 

So why is company culture so important?

Not least due to the shortage of talents with highly sought-after skills, the job market has begun to flip and individuals with skills that are high in demand nowadays have choices where they want to work. An attractive company culture can not only be a differentiating factor in attracting talent but it can also become crucial to a company’s success. Since the late nineties and early 2000s there’s a growing body of evidence for a causal connection between a culture and business success. A healthy culture can get people into a collective state of flow. People that are happy at their work will also make customers more happy in turn, leading to higher profitability. That is probably the reason why more and more companies have taken a purposeful look at the culture topic in the past 5-10 years, resulting in a plethora of initiatives to shape their culture. Not all of these attempts were successful – as it seems from the results of the poll above, the majority did not quite hit the mark. 

Has 2020 exacerbated this need?

As consultancy firm Deloitte points out in their recent report on the future of work after COVID-19, “now is not the time to pull back (…), but instead to double down on commitments to building a resilient workforce that can adapt in the face of constant change.” A strong and healthy company culture can nurture resilience – so the topic is not going to disappear – rather the opposite.

If you have a culture that naturally fosters creativity, curiosity, learning, reflection and diversity of thought – it’s likely that your pipeline of ideas on how to solve customer problems will not run dry and you’re all set up for thriving – even in times of unpredictable change. 

So, how do companies try to shape their culture?

Very often, companies start working on culture by defining values that the company finds important and wants people to live in their day-to-day work. The trouble with this approach is that many of these values (like fairness, courage, passion,…) can be interpreted in multiple ways. The perception of what is “fair” or what is “courageous” is shaped by how people are socialized. The problem with trying to define culture like this (top-down and with values) is that this comes from an intellectual and conceptual angle. These values leave a lot of room for interpretation, while what people see and experience day to day is shaped not by values but by behaviour patterns and habits around them. These patterns are in turn driven by underlying, taken-for-granted agreements that are never spoken about but often not in line with the aspirational values. Interestingly, some organisations even state they “haven’t got a culture” by which they mean they don’t have an appropriate culture. Working on the ‘right’ culture is oftentimes understood as a technocratic process: In the ideal world, leadership teams in organisations would press a button and receive the ‘right’ and functional culture as a result.

Posters vs. reality – guess who wins

To make this more tangible, let’s look at an example: Sonja once worked in a team where there were “speak-up” posters on the walls, explaining how important and welcome it is to call out if something doesn’t feel right. In this same team, the habitual behaviour patterns were as such that the senior leader of that team regularly interrupted people in mid-sentence and cut them off. At the same time, it was not common practice for the team to address this behaviour or to ask challenging questions towards leaders in meetings. The underlying assumption that no-one ever spoke about was: “We are not equal; leaders have special rights, and these should not be undermined.” In that way the team had formed a silent contract with their leader and among each other that was not only powerful enough to overwrite the company values displayed on the walls, but it also made Sonja feel cynical about them. It cost her a lot of energy to try and uphold her own personal integrity in this environment – so much so that she eventually left.

In the next part of this series, we will look at the central role of habits and unspoken agreements, who is in charge of culture and examples of how not to play it.

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