Business strategy and fixing a negative culture

Kathryn Kendall

13/02/2018
Categories: Culture, HR

On 1st February, I was given the opportunity to speak at the Benefex Client Forum on the HR topic which is perhaps closest to my heart; culture.

A huge part of creating or nurturing a positive culture is to make it a focal point of your recruitment process. For more on how we do this at Benefex, take a look here.

It is my belief that everything in an organisation stems from its culture. Success, failure, ability to realise potential… everything will depend on the prevailing culture of the business. During my presentation, I talked to delegates about the links between culture and productivity, before going on to provide some case studies of initiatives designed to positively influence culture, which I have implemented during my time at Benefex.

We started with the dictionary definition of culture: “a series of behaviours and beliefs which are characteristic of a particular social, age or ethnic group”.

Culture can’t be forced

The key word in that definition is “characteristic”. It is important because it makes it clear that our culture arises from the behaviours which are innate to the individuals who work with us. In other words: culture can’t be forced. It’s simply not possible to stand up in front of your business and tell people that this is what your culture is going to be. If you try to do so, you will fail, every time.

So, we know that culture can’t be forced. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it. We need to think of our organisational culture as being like a plant. If we stand in front of a plant and tell it to grow… we’re going to achieve very little. However, if we surround our plant with the ideal conditions for it to thrive: sunlight, water, soil, plant food… that’s when we really start to see it realise its full potential. And thus it is with culture.

Before we go on to talk about the kind of initiatives which will help us to realise our cultural potential, it’s important that we understand why culture is so critical to our organisations.

The foundation of our business 

It helps to think of culture as our foundation: the basis from which everything else stems. The right culture, which is made up of the right behaviours, will actively drive employee engagement with our business objectives. If our workforce is collectively engaged with our objectives, the chances of us achieving those objectives increases in line with the focus which is now behind them.

An organisation achieving its objectives will then find itself in the position where it can choose to invest more time and resource into nurturing its culture and reinforcing the desired behaviours. A greater demonstration of those behaviours leads to greater levels of engagement with the business objectives. We achieve more of our objectives. And so, that positive cycle continues.

That’s a great place to be in – and it’s where we should all be aiming to get our organisations to – but, as many of us know, it isn’t always like that. There is a reverse to that positive cycle, and it looks something like this…

When culture goes wrong

In this scenario, the prevailing culture of the day is one which is made up of destructive behaviours. Destructive behaviours mean that, rather than engaging employees with the organisation’s objectives, they actively disengage them.

Disengaged employees aren’t interested in the goals of the business. They are solely focused on their own individual personal objectives. Because those objectives are all different, they fragment the focus of the workforce. As a result, the business objectives are not achieved.

What’s more, that employee disengagement feeds back into the culture. This drives more destructive behaviours, which drive further disengagement with the business objectives… and, if we are not careful, we find ourselves stuck inside a very negative experience indeed.

Driving our culture forwards

It can be quite easy to positively reinforce great behaviours which are already in place, but far harder to turn around a culture like the one described above. Our aim, therefore, as HR professionals, needs to be to implement the initiatives and bring the right people into our organisations which are going to really nurture and drive our culture forwards.

Take a look at how we recruit for a positive culture here at Benefex!

Positive reinforcement

What do we do then to positively reinforce our culture?

The answer for us – and for most organisations – lies in our Company Values. The idea behind corporate values is that they provide a framework around which the required behaviours should hang, positively reinforcing these behaviours on a day to day basis.

The reality is, however, somewhat different to the theory in a number of businesses, and I think at Benefex we would put our hands up and say that, prior to 2017, our business was one of those. Sure, we had a set of values – our four Company Cornerstones – which were visible, up on the wall in our kitchen, and which all employees were asked to physically sign up to… but in all honesty, they really were nothing more than the (literal) writing on the wall. They were meaningless, and I can prove this by the fact that no one in the business was able to tell you what they were. If people don’t know your values, then how can they possibly be guiding behaviours?

Having acknowledged that, in 2017 we launched a new set of values at our quarterly company-wide update. For each of our eight new values, we talked to the organisation about what they meant, and how they were designed to help them make the right decisions in their role.

Taking ownership

That was only the start of the process though. At that point everyone might have been made aware of what the new values were, but there was still quite some work to do in order to get all employees truly signed up to and taking ownership of them.

We held Values Workshops with every single team across the business, and during those workshops we worked on bringing those values to life. Taking each value in turn, we talked to team members about how they could commit to these and what they would need to do to be a great exponent of each. For example, if we take our value “Deliver, Every Day”, each team would agree the set of behaviours that they would commit to in order to really deliver against this value.

At the end of each workshop, we collated the commitments from each team and turned these into charters – one charter per department. These Values Charters are now displayed in our kitchen area, and contain the committable statements from each team. It means that any employee – whether a new joiner or someone who has been with us for some time, and is perhaps moving teams – can look at the relevant charter and know exactly what is expected from them in terms of cultural behaviours.

Maximising our potential

By rolling out our revised values in this way, we’ve not only ensured that people know them, but also that they feel a true sense of ownership for them. This is apparent in the way we now see peer-to-peer recognition happening around the business, with employees calling out examples of great behaviours and ensuring that they are recognised. We have effectively used our values to act as a daily reminder of the expected behaviours which make up our culture, a culture which we know then enables us to achieve our maximum potential.

Those are just a couple of examples of the kinds of things that organisations can and should do in order to positively reinforce and influence their culture. There are many more such examples I could give – on both a large and a much smaller scale. Cultural interventions don’t need to always be as time and resource heavy as the ones I have described above. Sometimes it is the very smallest changes which can make the biggest difference.

In summary

The right culture will drive engagement with your business objectives and increase your delivery output. Culture is organic – it can’t be forced. And most importantly: Don’t compromise on culture. Get your culture wrong, and your chances of achieving your goals and objectives are slim to none. Get it right… and everything else will follow.

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