People Culture

Building a Strong Company Culture through Effective People Management

Jim Cunningham

Jim Cunningham

June 12, 2023 6 min read

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Ask anyone what they think differentiates a successful organization from ones that aren’t so successful, and chances are the word “culture” will come up. Both culture, and cult, share the same etymology, which were from words that meant cultivation and worship; they have since diverged into distinct concepts. Culture, describing how a community, or organization, does things and goes about work and life. A company culture may describe its norms, how people generally talk, treat one another, or set priorities. A cult, on the other hand, is typically thought of as an unhealthy cultivation of members of a community, or organization, to worship a common entity, literally or metaphorically. While some companies confuse these two, most understand that a culture where teamwork, support, collaboration, and problem-solving is the norm, will help drive results.

The cultures of organizations vary widely and are rarely intentional, but instead develop organically as behaviors are shaped by stories, evolving norms, and a general sense of how people treat each other. Whatever culture you desire, you most likely want one that is strong enough to carry the organization through the hard times and lasting enough to attract the best talent. Front-line managers play an integral role in building and reinforcing a culture that supports success, not only of the company, but also of the individual.

Just like culture, leadership styles vary, and that is a good thing if we want to continue to evolve best practices in management.  Culture reflects leadership and it is possible to build the desired culture but only if managers are listening to their teams. Words and actions become the stories told throughout the organization, so building a strong culture based on teamwork and collaboration means that stories told by employees should reflect those values. The question to start with is, do you have an intentionally built culture?

How does an organization create a culture rather than passively watch one emerge? Changing an existing culture is much harder than creating one from the very start. Leaders, from the CEO to front-line management, must speak and act with a common set of values that employees can witness firsthand. To proactively build the culture you want, consider the following strategies:

Know what you want it to be

How do you want employees to describe your organization to the outside world, because that is most often the best description of company culture whether you want it to be, or not. A culture reflects your organizational values and understanding how to guide it with Intentionality can’t be overemphasized; building a culture is no different than meeting a quarterly financial target; you have to know what you plan to achieve and, you need to have a plan for achieving it. Try working backwards and imagine you are working in a successful organization with a great culture. Write a letter to a friend and describe what it is like to work at your company… that is your target culture.

Communicate cultural norms repeatedly

Because culture is not a poster in the break room, a motto, or a catch phrase under a logo. Culture is easy to forget when the path of least resistance may mean setting a particular value aside in favor of expediency. Repeating the cultural values of your organization not only reminds your employees, but it reminds leaders as well. As managers talk with employees and manage continual change, they have an opportunity to reinforce cultural norms in conversation after conversation. Words repeated… and actions repeated… anchor your culture to the norms you value.

Test words and actions against values without reprisal

Veering from the desired culture can be unintentional and very human. In other words, if you want to be deliberate about building a specific culture then you have to create a safe environment, where calling out actions and decisions that run contrary to culture is not only acceptable… it’s encouraged. Is this easy? Absolutely not, and there will be times when you must balance culture with the demands of customers or external factors that are not under your control. The important thing is making sure everyone knows that, while imperfect, there is a genuine effort to strive for fidelity to the values.

Listen to the stories of workers

These stories tell you how they might describe your culture to others. Culture can’t become an exercise of branding; it has to be the product of authentic words and actions that tell a story. For example, if two intended cultural characteristics are to be customer-centered and employee-enabling, what are employees telling each other — and people outside the company — that reflect that? What does it say about cultural alignment if one employee tells another, “The customer was really upset because they had been put on hold three times and transferred all over. I wanted to apologize, go ahead, and discount their bill, and get some team members to start with a root-cause analysis, but my manager won’t let me do anything until they check with their director first.”? Knowing the lore told by your workforce is important and we should recognize employees may dwell on negative past events and move past it much slower than we would like. How do these stories shape culture and what new stories can be created to counteract negative ones?

Know that the work of culture building never ends

Change moves slowly toward the positive and rapidly toward the negative. This bias in favor of the negative is the result of human nature. Psychology experts tell us that people are hardwired to go negative because of our “fight or flight” defense mechanism and because we are hardwired this way, we need to generate at least three positive thoughts to offset one negative one. An organization’s culture is malleable and while often stagnant, managers and leaders have the ability to move it in a positive direction.

As you think about building your culture, make it a priority and not an afterthought. Many organizations spend years recovering from missteps that impacted employee productivity, brand quality, and overall success. Make culture building a deliberate effort that leverages the power of the manager to influence your workforce norms.

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