At first it seems counterintuitive to ‘write’ down your culture. Where would you even start? Culture isn’t exactly tangible, after all. But it should be. Culture has to be tangible to survive scale and to proliferate throughout an organisation. Letting it remain this ‘intangible thing’ is the biggest threat to culture in business.
Start-ups are known for their culture. We also know that leaders and founders set the culture. Look at any small businesses (and a couple of larger ones) that have great cultures and you’ll find that said culture is a direct reflection of the leader / founder of the business – why? because they created the business in their own image, naturally. Employees look upwards for examples and ‘how-to’s’ so naturally they adopt the leaders ‘way’. This works for employees 1- 25, but by the time employee 26 arrives odds are that the founder is around less and less, spending more and more time out of the office. So who do new employees look to for guidance? Who shows them the culture?
This is where codifying your culture becomes vital. As more and more layers creep in between leaders / original staff and new employees, the culture gulf gets bigger and bigger. The people who essentially set the culture get further and further away from the people they expect to emulate it. Culture is essentially the behaviours that you reward and punish – if people don’t know exactly what those are how can they possiblt ‘act in the companies best interest’?
If you think about it, for new employees joining an organisation, it’s a bit like arriving at a party that has been going on without you for years. They don’t really know how to behave or act.
New hires don’t walk into your company already knowing your culture. They walk in anxious — hoping for success and fearing failure. They look around them to figure out how they are supposed to behave. They see who’s succeeding, and they imitate what they’re doing as best they can. They figure out who’s failing, and they try to avoid being like them. Jocelyn Goldfein
If the people succeeding are doing so by stepping on other people to get to the top – whether thats the intended culture or not – it’s the culture your newbies see. I’ve worked with clients to codify and capture their culture and I have seen first hand how powerful the process can be and how meaningful the end result becomes. Some of the most powerful outcomes are:
It makes it concrete and tangible.
The process of codifying your culture involves taking a deep look at your company, your current culture and whether it actually reflects your desired culture, there is always an aspirational aspect to this. You have to figure out what it is that you are going after , go through the steps of figuring out and defining:
a) exactly why culture matters to you
b) the experience you want people to have at work
c) what your non-negotiables around culture are
Once you have a clear idea of all of these and you can capture and share the actions and behaviours that emulate your culture, if you can define the behaviours that your culture rewards and punishes, it paints a clear picture for everyone. Culture is no longer disparate and intangible – everyone can see it in actions and behaviours.
It makes it universal… and there is nowhere to hide
When you’ve codified your culture it is no longer sacred oral law kept only by the founding few and passed down through the ranks. Once codified it becomes something for people at every level to adopt and own. Everyone has access to it, everyone interacts with it. This also means that no-one can feign not knowing it. When everyone has equal access to understanding your company’s how, why, what – everyone can be held accountable to that same standards.
It makes recognising and rewarding the right behaviours easy
When you have clearly articulated the behaviours that your culture supports and condemns, it is easy to recognise the ideal behaviours, consistently – because then they become habits, which become rituals, which create your culture.
It tells current and future employees that you give a shit (action required)
Codifying your culture is a huge step. It sends a clear message to employees that culture matters here. Also – as Forbes / Talent Board report, 41% of candidates are looking for information on a company’s culture before applying for a job there. When you send a clear message that you take culture seriously – you make it a lot easier for your company to attract the best talent, and when you codify the culture and train people on it, and hold people accountable to it – then you can retain great talent. As an employee experience specialist – this is the crux, this is what it all comes down to: how do you attract the best talent?, and how do you keep them?.
Making your culture tangible, articulating it in one clear voice, and making it non-negotiable is a great place to start.
We are Strive, an Employee Experience Design Firm.