Culture from the top down?

by Jo Higgs on 9 December 2016

I've worked across different sectors and industries and while all the organsiations I have worked with like to feel they have a great culture, and the management will talk about how great it is, more often than not a conversation about culture with staff who are a little lower down the food chain results in a more cynical response.

The image of company culture that is portrayed by Leadership is generally rose tinted, rainbow basked, unicorn dancing utopia. In an interview or meeting they will wax lyrical about the amazing family feel, the collaboration and the 'pulling in one direction'.

But this isn't an act - they genuinely believe it. They're usually so passionate about it that they get you to believe it too. Unfortunately, all too often the reality is that the workforce, feels slightly differently.

Culture can't be invented by management and enforced, but no positive cultural change can exist without management investing in giving people the chance to have a voice

So where does it get lost?

Any organization worth its salt wants to have a great culture. It makes the environment a happy place to work, staff are engaged with what the organisation is trying to achieve and, typically, staff that have a strong psychological contract with their employer are harder working and more productive. The question is, how do you get there?

Organisations with a genuinely amazing culture that is felt throughout the business have a happy balance. Culture cannot be dictated from the top down but it cannot exist without the 'top' being invested.

Leadership that hires expensive consultants and spend days locked in a room in a blue-sky thinking, post it note sticking, role playing workshop may come out with some idea of what they want their culture to be. They may write a set of value principles which they force down the throats of all their long-suffering employees, 'Look how amazing we are, look at our values, aren't we special!'

That's the easy bit. The hard work comes in getting your people to buy into these values, to live and breathe them, to refer to them when they are making decisions in the work place and to honestly and truly identify with what the organsiation is trying to achieve.

When I joined Webcredible they already had a very strong culture of trust, autonomy and collaboration. The staff are truly invested in what the company is trying to do. My challenge is to maintain that culture and way of working as the company grows.

We have recently been going through the journey to achieve our Investors in People status. As we sat in the room and went through the Standard I knew instantly that we were not going to meet the criteria around values. It came as a bit of a shock, if I'm honest. In fairness, we failed on a technicality, although we have a strong culture with values that people are aligned with, we don't have it written down anywhere. A bit of a school boy error but easily rectified.

We decided to use this as an opportunity to revisit our values proposition and gather all the good stuff we already had and streamline it into a set of principles that our people can refer to and use to guide them in their day-to-day lives at Webcredible.

How did we do it?

We ran a workshop and got everyone in the company together (easy when you are only 30 people, but if you are a larger organisation a cross section of staff from across the business would suffice). We asked everyone to think about their personal values, what they thought our current values were, and what they thought, if anything, was missing. Taking the output of this workshop, I wrote up common themes and drafted a set of statements that covered the majority of what people felt was important to them.

Instead of then taking these findings and effectively republishing them via our leadership team, we decided to keep the company involved. We created the Webcredible Culture Club. We asked for volunteers from across the business that were passionate about our culture to join. The club's remit is to be ambassadors of the culture and values we want to continue to embed in everything we do.

The Culture Club meets quarterly, it's not a social committee, but instead is a forum for people to work together and suggest ways in which we can make our culture, values and identified behaviours relevant. I carry the ideas and recommendations to the Leadership Team and we make changes, big or small, but always important.

In summary, Culture covers a very broad spectrum and is quite difficult to identify... it's a feeling, a desire, a presence in the place that pulls everyone towards a common goal. It can't be invented by management and enforced, but no positive cultural change can exist without management investing in giving people the chance to have a voice, and the opportunity to shape positive change.

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