Two companies I’ve recently been collaborating closely with are going through an intensive growth period, and one of the biggest fears I hear from people regarding growth at these companies is concerning “the loss of their culture”.
As someone who thinks and talks a great deal about culture in both my professional and personal life, this really got me thinking.
What exactly does organizational culture mean and how could it get lost? For an individual, what symbolizes the company’s culture besides some document they got during their onboarding?
The answers I get from these young, ambitious companies that started out with a small team are often similar. They love that everyone knows everyone at the company. They all feel comfortable around each other and can often anticipate how someone will react in any given situation. Their fear is that by suddenly hiring a host of new people and implementing new structures and processes, the familiar safety of knowing what to expect will be gone.
Does this sound familiar to you?
If so, let me offer an alternative perspective. In this article, I’m going to share my personal experience and thoughts about what company culture actually is and how you can make it more tangible so that it can support your people even as you’re reaching for new heights.
Let me state this upfront: if qualities like honesty, transparency, or collaborative problem-solving can be lost, then they weren’t built on a solid foundation in the first place. When values are integrated in an organization’s culture, far from getting lost over time, they are the things that ensure continuity even in the most challenging periods.
Company culture doesn’t mean fancy words in a handbook or bean bags in the office. Rather, it’s a guide for people on what attitudes and behaviors to choose in any given situation.
In its most powerful form, culture lives in the everyday interactions of people.
If a client asks a team member a question, how will they respond? Will they send a one-sentence email with a link to your FAQ page? Will they call her to make sure everything is clear? Will they record a short video to send her where they give a step by step explanation?
Which behaviors get rewarded, tolerated, or rejected in your organization communicates the message “this is how we do things around here.” Ideally, culture is a mode of operation that is clearly understood, accepted, and upheld by everyone.
A strong culture means your people can depend on it to inform their actions. It also means every individual is aware that their behavior either contributes to or impedes the creation of the culture you are striving to build together.
If you fear the loss of your culture as the organization continues to grow, think about what you as an individual can do to maintain the elements you love about it. If one of your organizational values is open communication, then be an example of an open communicator instead of complaining behind someone’s back when they mess up. You, too, are responsible for building the kind of culture you want to work in.
Traveling has always been something I was extremely passionate about, and for a long time, this made me think I should become a digital nomad. Then one day I realized what it is that I actually find so fascinating about it. More than the act of going away, I love immersing myself in the rhythm of daily life in another country, exploring the shared history, values, and traditions that bind people together.
This is the same thing I do in my work with organizations. To find the best solutions for their needs, I need to first understand how they think and what makes them who they are. Essentially, I become an observer of their culture.
There are 5 core elements that make up an organization’s culture:
In my experience, thinking about organizational culture often stops at values, with maybe some mindsets thrown in for good measure. It’s easy to come up with a couple of nice-sounding words and put them on your website and office wall. But if you limit yourself to such a narrow definition, you are missing out on the main benefits of a strong, consciously developed organizational culture.
By acknowledging how the five elements of culture are already present in your organization and collectively defining the ones you haven’t yet paid attention to, you can strengthen the feeling of a shared identity in your people and develop a common understanding. This will create a standard for what constitutes great work in your company.
When people can discern whether or not a certain behavior is a cultural match, things become much more effective. Alignment makes it possible for them to generate higher value, which will add to your bottom line.
However, you won’t obtain this cultural awareness if team members only hear about your values during an onboarding presentation. The culture you envision can only become real if people are supported in integrating it into their everyday behavior by the structures and processes you put into place.
Organizations can experience the true power of what culture can do for them when they learn to look at it as the north star of who they aspire to be. When you have a clear picture of the kind of organization you want to be, making strategic decisions becomes a lot easier.
In one culture-building project I facilitated, a team of 80 people came up with their own guidelines for how they wanted to work together. After these guidelines were agreed upon, they provided a clear direction for the company’s learning and development objectives. Transparent communication was very important to everyone, and they realized their current reality wasn’t living up to this value. The intention was there, but they lacked the skills necessary to put it into practice. This realization led to a series of training sessions on how to give feedback and have productive confrontations so they could become better positioned to make the impact they worked towards.
In another company I worked with, the founders held a very strong vision of a world where business is a force for good. This informed their strategy from day one, and even in the early stages they said no to many projects that didn’t align with their values. They were laser-focused on what they were working for, and this helped them build stronger relationships with those who shared their vision. This also turned out to be very beneficial for the business.
Your organization’s culture can become one of your strongest assets in achieving your goals, but only if what you say actually matches your reality.
If you say that learning is important at your organization, but you never let people participate in trainings because it would mean 4 hours away from a project, people might be left wondering what is going on. Didn’t you communicate in all your marketing materials how you were giving time and space for people to learn at this company? If discrepancies like this happen frequently, people will become confused, and eventually disillusioned and indifferent about culture.
Values and big visions quickly become empty if they are conveniently put aside every time something doesn’t yield immediate benefits or requires a different approach to how things are usually done.
The greatest organizational cultures come alive when they are built on the kind of world, the kind of workplace you wish to create. If you know it, it’s easier to figure out the elements needed to get there.
For example, one of my clients knew they wanted to build a team where people actually enjoyed spending time together, instead of being forced to work with colleagues they could barely tolerate. They specifically designed their recruitment process with this goal in mind. They ask for a CV as usual, but instead of the standard competency-based interview, they conduct a personal interview first. Until it’s clear the candidate is a cultural match, there is no talk about skills and achievements. This helps them avoid hiring someone whose past performance might outshine red flags that would likely turn into problems later.
The structures and processes you put into place can ideally be linked back to the culture you want to cultivate.
If you say that every voice matters, but you don’t have anything in place that supports people in sharing their feedback and ideas, then this phrase doesn’t mean anything and won’t help you produce tangible results. How does “every voice matters” show up in your all-hands meeting? How does it show up when a team member shares her concerns about a project? What kinds of regular rituals do you have that help you collect and act upon ideas from employees?
By looking at culture through this lens, this seemingly intangible concept will become much more tangible and easier to measure.
Come up with initiatives that support communal storytelling
Your core team, the founders, and the people who have been with you the longest are bound together by many shared experiences: battles fought and won together, storms weathered, successes celebrated, jokes that nobody else can fully understand.
Use these stories to show newer team members how your culture was formed, what helped you get to where you are today. For example, you could ask senior team members to participate in an internal video campaign and share anecdotes or learnings from their time with the company.
It’s important to remember to keep adding to the narrative as you grow. When your organization is more than a couple of years old and you have eight times more people than you started with, what the three founders did in their earliest days when things were completely different won’t be as relevant to your newest hires. You are writing this story together now, so make sure everyone finds something they can connect to and feels like they are shaping your future history.
Connect your recurring events and rituals to your values
I once worked for a company that went through an intense change while I was there. Management realized this was going to be a sensitive time for employees, so they decided to lead with the organization’s value of transparency. For months, they scheduled a town hall meeting every Friday where any team member could share their viewpoint and ask questions. This was a great example of a ritual that linked an important element of the company’s culture to current events.
Examine if there are opportunities where you could repeatedly show your values in action. Do they have a regular place in meetings, get-togethers, and other events? Do you have anything in the calendar that could serve as an illustration of one or more of them?
Give regular feedback on cultural aptitude
Pay close attention to whether people are relying on your culture as a guideline to inform their behavior. Figure out ways to help them translate your ideals into everyday actions.
For example, if high-contact relationships with clients are important to you, and a new recruit sends out a pretty generic email, give them feedback on it. Let them know that while this might be an acceptable response at other places, you do things differently in your organization.
Make sure people are not only praised for achievements but also recognized for embodying your values in the way they behave.
Assess where you might be dealing with a skills gap
In my experience, the gap between your envisioned culture and current reality often comes from a lack of skill rather than a lack of intention. Most of the time, people are well-meaning and genuinely want to do a good job, but they might not have the skills to do so.
Identify what skills could be necessary for someone to be able to act in accordance with your values or properly use the processes you put into place. Not everyone is born with the same listening skills, for example, and those who are naturally great at listening can sometimes be conflict-avoidant. Teaching them communication skills could be the key to creating the kind of transparent, collaborative culture you want.
Run your organizational structures and processes through the lens of your ideal culture
If you want to build a culture where helping each other is a value, but performance reviews only ever focus on individual achievements, then your current process actually hinders the realization of this value. Why should people waste valuable time helping out someone else when it won’t add anything to their reputation or chances of a promotion?
When you are thinking about implementing a new process, always cross-reference it with your ideal culture. Re-examine your current structures as well. Do they support or contradict the culture you want to create?
It’s not a coincidence everyone is talking about organizational culture these days. With careful consideration and conscious design, your unique culture could become one of your biggest advantages and the key to creating the impact you want to create.
I hope this article was helpful in expanding the way you think about culture and was able to offer you some food for thought. And if you feel like there is a gap between where you are and where you want to be, send me a message at email@example.com and let’s build a strong bridge together.