On the surface, it may seem as though there are endless types of business cultures. But when you boil them down, there are really just two: structured and unstructured. Structured cultures involve an approved “code of conduct,” which is enforced by management. In an unstructured culture, the behavior of the leader sets the tone for the rest of the organization.
Structured culture is generally found in larger organizations where employees span multiple locations, and its goal is to educate everyone on how they are supposed to act and interact with their coworkers. Structured culture is often handed down from management, and while this practice allows a company to force compliance, it does not necessarily forge a positive culture. Management can’t force people to “feel” a certain way about the organization, and if a culture is created at the top and forced down, it becomes a false representation of how a company behaves. A better way is to form a cross-functional team including managers and employees to recommend core values to senior management for approval. This represents more of a “by the people, for the people” plan.
Unstructured culture, more commonly found in smaller companies, is more of a feeling than a predetermined set of standards. If people feel they are safe (both physically and emotionally), treated fairly, heard when voicing concerns, in comfortable surroundings, challenged and working with people they respect, a positive homegrown culture will result. Employees reflect a positive culture on their faces, in how they interact with coworkers and customers, through the effort they put into their jobs and through the connection they feel to the organization.
How “Culture” is Determined
In a larger company, formalized culture comes from the top, down. If the president of the company believes having a positive culture is important, he or she will set the tone for the organization and have the Human Resources department distribute a set of evolving values and attitudes, provide training, integrate the elements into performance reviews and instill consequences for non-compliance and/or recognition for exemplary displays.
In smaller companies, however, “like attracts like.” If the president of the company treats his or her managers aggressively, then managers will treat employees aggressively. Sometimes disguising their actions as “holding someone accountable,” authoritarian leaders and managers generally rule with a stick. They pack on work, set tight deadlines, reprimand concerns or dissent and feel little to no empathy for their workers.
However, the opposite can also be true. If the president is fair, considerate and interested in employee welfare, and if he or she educates rather than dictates and empowers managers and employees, the company culture will likely be far more positive.
A Bad Apple Spoils the Bunch
Within every company, there occasionally appears a “bad apple.” This individual somehow made his or her way into the company and is now making everyone else’s life miserable. No one, especially employees who report directly to the “bad apple,” has the courage to out him or her for fear of being fired for insubordination. Generally, within a small company, enough grumbling eventually gets the ear of the president. However, the issue may linger.
The “bad apple” may be an excellent performer who is fantastic with clients and provides highly detailed and accurate work, but no one in the office wants to be around him. Perhaps the individual makes caustic comments that are borderline harassment. After repeated counseling sessions, the behavior doesn’t improve and is now impacting morale. The manager could either insist the individual work remotely or fire him. It is unfortunate to let high performers go, but when they begin to negatively affect culture and employee trust, it’s a necessity.
The best way to avoid bringing in a “bad apple” is to carefully screen candidates before hiring. At a minimum, have individuals at different levels interview candidates and provide their candid comments to the hiring manager in writing. Beyond determining whether an individual has the skills required, incorporate questions that will draw out their personality. Do they anger quickly? Do they get defensive? How have they resolved disagreements in the past? Do they appear to be arrogant? Do they smile? Do they seem genuine?
Another approach is to implement personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs, customized toward the type of employees that fit the organization’s culture. Also, realize different types of personalities may work for different roles. For example, a salesperson ought to be extroverted and personable, but an accountant may be more introverted and focused. However, there may be a few core characteristics common to every hire, such as caring, personable, respectful and dedicated.
It may seem trivial, but every large company was once a small company, and it’s those little traditions leftover from the small days that make a culture unique. Maybe the president used to send employees hand-written notes of thanks or bring cakes to the break room to celebrate birthdays. The leadership may have even given out turkeys at Thanksgiving and hams at Christmas. Pay out the bonuses, provide the certificates and awards, and champion the company softball team. Protect the things employees like about the company, and don’t let growth de-humanize the organization.
Transparency and Trust
To paraphrase the book Good to Great, let’s assume the company has gotten the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. Still, if senior management doesn’t practice the core values or consistently display the desired behaviors, the good employees will not be there long. Strong contributors will provide their loyalty only in exchange for transparency, empowerment, challenge, respect, mutual trust and a sense of belonging.
Tony Streeter is the CMO & SVP of San Antonio-based Y&L Consulting, Inc. Y&L Consulting is a comprehensive IT services & solutions company specializing in Application Development, Information Management/BI, Social Monitoring & Response and IT Help Desk Services.
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