Building Culture on Unsteady Ground

It happens to so many organisations, even the best of them, particularly in these leaner economic times. 

Companies, once in their cultural heydey, where employees regularly interacted and socialised both in and out of work, where different departments and teams bent over backwards to help each other out, all in the name of the organisation’s vision have now fallen into private fiefdoms. Where once communication existed, now only the echoes of deathly silence prevail or even worse, whispers.

As a Manager, you walk in knowing that there could be a fight waiting for you, and you desperately search for the right solution or worse you disconnect completely.  

We haven’t even begun talking about productivity and the bottom line.

By any measure, it is a sad state of affairs. A bleak picture and one I’ve soaked in a mixture of emotive, metaphorical and idiosyncratic language, however, it serves a purpose: When things get bad enough it becomes an emotional game, and rational thought is suppressed. 

So what do you do? At this point you’re probably expecting me to give you a ‘Soldiers Five’ (to borrow a term from my Navy days), or ‘The seven things Steve Jobs secretly knew about culture and now I’m going to reveal it you’.  Maybe it’s a different name or number, but they are plot devices to the same cheap narrative. No, instead I’m going to keep it plain and to the point. 

Firstly, not all companies are experiencing this negative trend, but MHR is coming across it more and more. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining – it’s good for business. But it isn’t good for the employers or the employees. 

Reader note how I included the employee as part of the process. It can’t be top down Tip #1. 

I don’t have a magic numbered list or a wand or ‘one weird trick’, but I do have a beginning, and I can be honest and say that the road is both bumpy and long. The length, of course, is a relative concept, as the size of your company is one such variable, and your patience is another. 

START SMALL, really small. 

You see when you build culture it’s a funny game. There is always a grand ending envisioned, and rightly so, but we associate that with a grand beginning and when it comes to company culture it is, in fact, the opposite. The smallest seeds will produce the mightiest Redwoods. You need to look at this concept from your employees’ perspective. They need to believe you can pull this off before you can start building the structure. Australians, generally speaking, are a naturally cynical lot, it has its advantages culturally, we are very utilitarian, but it also breeds deep scepticism.

Don’t make glossy brochures or have grand announcements. You haven’t earned that right yet. Start with coffee and cake or something equally down to earth. Clearly, temper this to the demographic of your workforce (definitely not alcohol - for a start it’s very lazy culture building, let alone the negative issues that come with it. That’s Tip #2). And whatever you do don’t announce this as ‘step one’ in a wider, grander plan. Just do it and when people ask 'why?', simply tell them you wanted people to socialise a bit more. Be prepared for ‘I’m too busy’, deliver no emotive reaction just tell them your happy to shift any deadline right by the X minutes/hours absorbed by this activity.  

So you now say to me “Why should I do this, it won’t change my culture!!” Yes you’re right it won’t change the culture towards your fantastical vision, but it will signal to your employees that you can pull off some ‘culture stuff’ because they likely think you are incapable. For them to buy into jumping on the culture ‘bus’ and heading down to ‘Vision-town’ you need to convince them that you have a bus, the bus has an engine, that when they step aboard there will be a seat, that the seat won’t collapse and then you need to convince them again that you can drive it and that it won’t run out of fuel.

Think about this logically. If some random person asked you to jump out of a plane, you probably wouldn’t do it. However, if someone called an ‘instructor’ with a bunch of certificates, a luridly coloured jumpsuit and a GoPro strapped to her head told you to, whilst adjusting your ‘backpack’… you’d probably jump. In the old tongue, that’s called ‘institutional trust’. In today's language, we usually preface that term with ‘a lack of ...’. That’s MY cynicism shining through.

So now what? You rinse and repeat. 'Why' you ask? Because it signals consistency. It’s the key to institutional trust. Say what you’ll do in plain language, follow it up and be consistent with delivery and result. Basic Management, a skill rarely executed well. Once this has happened a few of times then you’ll have a base to work with, nothing more, no grand culture, just a base.

It’s at this very moment that you can sit down with your managers and team leaders and work out how to build and, more importantly, what to build, because I guarantee it will have changed since you started this process. (Getting your Managers’ and Team Leaders’ buy-in is important, DO NOT take it for granted. Just because you are all part of the ‘Leadership Group’ doesn’t mean they’re in. Tip #3) Why would it have changed? These tiny processes of culture would have connected YOU back to your employees (Culture is not just for the staff, Tip #4) and even if the vision by chance is identical the road to it will have been refined. 

I guess I have to admit the lie of this article’s title now. It’s not about building anything on any unstable ground. It’s about building the ground itself, and it’s about you being as much a part of the cultural process as the staff members.

This is my platform to start. I can’t tell you how to build your company culture in 7 steps or 1100 words, or however many ‘Tips’ we are up to – that’s not possible. What I can do is give you a beginning and be honest. Good luck and more importantly don’t give up.