Your culture is your organisation’s personality; it’s the values, assumptions, attitudes and beliefs that drive decision making and employee behaviour within the business. It’s also the way your external stakeholders experience your business (which may or may not align with your brand). While research has repeatedly shown that strong cultures are positively correlated with better organisational performance, studies by both Deloitte and PwC found that organisational cultures were not aligned with reality and that most employees wanted culture change.
Great workplace cultures don’t happen by accident; they take deliberate cultivation by organisational leaders. Think of Canva, Mecca or Altissan, all who have developed strong and unique cultures that support their strategic aims. Although those great cultures have been driven by leadership, they haven’t simply just been ‘implemented’. Culture requires a combination of leadership at the top and practical implementation on the ground to really make it work.
Operationally, the critical stakeholder group for establishing a brilliant workplace culture is line-managers. They’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to encouraging or destroying the cultural change. This article provides 5 actions line-managers can take to drive cultural change.
To support your brilliant workplace culture, line-managers need to:
- Be trusting
- Be inclusive
- Be grateful
- Be enablers
- Be storytellers
Trust is fundamental to all brilliant workplace cultures as it drives feelings of psychological safety, giving and receiving meaningful feedback and access to flexibility.
Asking managers how their team know that they trust them generally elicits an incredulous ‘well, they just KNOW right?’. My answer is always a resounding ‘no!’; managers need to be explicitly and frequently communicate their trust.
This doesn’t mean making intense eye contact while saying ‘you know I trust you, right?’, but takes a far more informal form. Whenever I asked for leave my ex-manager would say ‘I know how well you manage your work. Take the time you need.’ It was a consistent reminder that I was trusted to make decisions about my own workload.
Find ways of expressing trust that feel authentic to you. Your employees may be a bit weirded out initially, but with time and consistency they’ll adjust. Try:
- You know what you need to deliver, how you best do that is up to you.
- I’m not going to check-in daily because you know what you’re doing; but come talk to me if you hit any roadblocks.
- If you send more emails from home because you’re super productive, great! But please don’t do it just to prove you’re working; I completely trust that you are.
Of course, words are meaningless if they aren’t supported by actions. You can’t say ‘I trust you’ and proceed to micromanage people’s work; it’s incongruous and damaging.
An organisation I worked for spent a LOT of money refurbishing their office with the aim of increasing flexible working. They created quiet nooks where employees could escape the open plan. Sadly, many managers stalked the floor searching for employees who weren’t at their desks. People simply stopped using those spaces and the desired flexible culture just died.
The key to demonstrating trust is setting clear expectations and explicitly stating how performance will be measured and managed. If employees know what is expected of them, the vast majority will deliver exactly what you need (and probably more).
Don’t manage teams as if they’re all the lowest common denominator. Manage them as if they’re all the highest, then remedially manage the minority of people who do the wrong thing and the tiny group who do them maliciously.
Consider how you’re building trust in your team:
- Are you verbally expressing trust to your team members? Is it consistently applied?
- Are your actions reinforcing your message of trust?
- What things can you put in place to enable greater trust within your team?
Brilliant cultures are inclusive cultures where no-one feels on the outer.
I know some will argue that if someone feels outside a workplace culture then they are with the wrong employer, and in values-conflict situations I agree. Someone who feels strongly about sustainability will struggle in a fast-fashion retailer. However, organisations with well aligned internal culture and external branding won’t attract candidates with values-conflicts!
Cultural inclusion issues occur where employees feel connected to the organisational culture but feel it doesn’t apply to them. Consider a father who wants to work flexibly but only sees mothers in his team doing so, or an employee with a sensory impairment who can’t attend the team disco bowling event.
As a manager you should always be looking for ways to specifically include employees. This means catering to people with diverse needs and ensuring all employees can contribute meaningfully to the team.
When reflecting on inclusion in your team, consider:
- Your team meetings: do you offer a variety of ways for people to contribute ideas or feedback?
- Work allocation in the team: is the most interesting and challenging work always going to the same few people or are those opportunities shared around?
- Flexible working arrangements: Do you hold any perceptions about flexible working that would make people less likely to access it?
- Team recognition: Is it primarily KPI or $ based or are other strengths recognised (especially if they are key to culture)?
Like trust, gratitude is often implicitly rather than explicitly expressed. So much energy goes into constructive feedback, but almost none goes into the provision of positive feedback; it’s a missed opportunity! Well delivered positive feedback that is genuine, specific and clearly linked to the desired workplace culture can be a significant driver of behaviour change, but it must be done right.
Every Friday at 3pm, the HR area of my ex-employer would collectively ‘ding’ as our weekly ‘thanks team’ email arrived. It was always a variation on the same generic theme and, while I’m not averse to team-wide emails, the benign content was problematic. There was no specificity, no connection to purpose or vision and it annoyed rather than motivated everyone.
Gratitude can also be demonstrated through actions. We’re not talking Oprah level giveaways, but small genuine gestures. A lawyer friend buys their assistant a coffee every Friday morning and writes something they appreciated that week on the lid. After delivering a key project my manager sent me flowers and a handwritten card detailing my development over that period. I still have that card! Both of those gestures cost almost nothing but had massive impact on the recipients.
Go even further by encouraging gratitude within your team. These schemes work well when employees get to nominate and have input into the outcome; just ensure they align with your desired culture.
Consider how you express gratitude in your team:
- Can it be more specific and linked to culture? For example, instead of ‘great work with that client call’ try ‘I was impressed with how you demonstrated our client-first values and stayed so calm’.
- What small acts can you introduce to convey gratitude to your team members?
- What team initiatives would support positive cultural behaviours?
All line-managers act as enablers for their teams; removing barriers and acting as an advocate for employee concerns so team members can just get on and do the job they’re employed to do.
Mostly that’s going to be pushing for better IT equipment or requesting policy amendments, but you can also proactively enable a brilliant workplace culture.
Ask your team ‘what is preventing us from having the culture we want?’ at both a team level and individual level, preferably quarterly. Employees may not say much at first, but over time and with consistent action, they’ll become more comfortable sharing their thoughts. Which leads to the next critical point; you must act on the feedback! You may not be able to solve the issue, but you must close the loop.
I worked for an organisation that, despite being focused on employee connection, didn’t provide lunchrooms in many of their suburban sites which really annoyed employees. One manager clearly explained what steps they were taking to remedy that. They would mention the issue to senior managers deliberately within earshot of their employees. They also started an initiative where the team picnicked together in a local park once a month.
The team didn’t get their longed-for lunchroom, but they knew their manager was always advocating for them and consequently they reported one of the highest office engagement results in the business.
Consider how you’re enabling your team to succeed:
- Are you proactively seeking ways of doing things better?
- How are you seeking feedback from your team about what they need to succeed?
- Do you close the loop with your team when there are battles you can’t win for them?
- When you hit a roadblock, do you work with your team to find viable alternatives?
Cultural storytelling is critical at the operational level. When line-managers share meaningful stories with their teams, employees repeat them, including to new employees, which helps sustain your culture over time.
Challenge yourself to proactively share positive culture stories to support cultural storytelling across the organisation. Ensure ‘culture wins’ are on the agendas of your peer-level meetings to embed the sharing. As you gather stories, think about how you can share them with your team.
A CEO of a global company personally called 5 random employees each day during the COVID crisis just to check in. He didn’t advertise it, he just did it. After about a week, everyone in the company knew about it; that’s tens of thousands of people. He’d only called about 30 people, but the story was so compelling that employees quickly shared it. That story will be folklore in that organisation (and beyond) and will forever reinforce their genuinely employee-centred culture.
Storytelling doesn’t have to be an ‘all team announcement’ (that can get tiresome) so consider:
- Is there an employee struggling with a certain cultural behaviour who would benefit from this story?
- Is there a natural storyteller in the team who could present this with more flair?
- Who are the employees of influence in your team? Would the story resonate better coming from them?
- Can the story be leveraged into a learning opportunity? For example, XYZ team made this amendment and reported great customer feedback. How can we adapt their approach to better serve our customers?
- Can the story originator share their experience with your team?
- Can you use LinkedIn or some other social channel to indirectly share the story?
Here’s three steps you can take now to move from blah to brilliant:
- Ensure you’re ready to tackle cultural change in your team. Change is more successful when you have the tools you need at hand. Do you have support from your organisation? Do you have the capability to drive change? If not, where can you acquire those skills? You may find this quiz helpful
- Plant the seed of change. Resistance to change is lowered when it doesn’t come as a total surprise and employees don’t feel ‘put upon’. Start weaving discussion about culture into your team. A great way to do this is start asking questions; employees tend to respond more positively to being asked instead of being told (‘we aren’t serving our customers as well as we could’ vs. ‘what’s stopping us from delivering our best customer service?’)
- Get the team to create their own vision. Ultimately every team is going to interpret the desired culture slightly differently, and that’s ok as long as everyone is pulling in the same direction. ‘Customer-first’ means one thing to a sales team and another to an IT team. Get your team to articulate what their desired culture looks, sounds and feels like and design your local changes around that. This article provides some good practical guidance.