Make culture (tangible)!

Given the rampant egalitarianism, corporate culture remains one of the last ways to attract and retain employees and differentiate your company from others. But how do you shape and use culture in concrete terms?

Basically, corporate culture causes employees to behave in a certain way in everyday life. Conversely, however, when employees change their behavior, the culture also changes. And leaders play a central role in this. Often their behavior is copied and therefore they directly influence the behavior of the employees and thus the culture of the company. Unfortunately, this is (still) too often done unconsciously - and therefore not always in a targeted manner.

If you want to use culture as one of your design levers, you should beware of two traps - the banalization trap on the one hand and the complexity trap on the other. In this article, I would like to outline how you can use the space between the two traps for yourself and your company. First, start by asking what you want culture to do in your company (and why that matters).

Start with culture impact

If you ask ten people what culture means to them, you’ll probably get ten different answers. This may hardly surprise you. After all, culture is perceived individually and interpreted from a specific context. So you can never describe culture context-free. You should take advantage of this: Model your personal effect model - i.e. the causal connections between culture (cause) and employee behavior (effect). Start by thinking backwards about what employee behavior you would like to observe or what your company needs to observe. Then work your way back step by step (which cultural building blocks lead to the desired effect, etc., etc.). You will have reached your goal when you can find no more causes - then you will have dug out your “cultural core”, so to speak.

Always focus on the effect you want to achieve and remain concrete. This will prevent endless discussions and quibbling. Use this approach also for topics such as leadership culture, error culture or feedback culture. And be careful not to confuse impact with significance. Because significance is a function of the actual observable effect - and not the other way around. It doesn’t help you much to believe that the leadership culture is significant for your company if you don’t understand how this culture should impact the behavior of leaders today and tomorrow.

This approach also requires you to limit yourself to what you consider to be the most essential drivers, otherwise your model will get so out of hand that you will hardly be able to present it sensibly. Limit yourself - even if this may hurt you intellectually. Employees will understand you better.

Communicate essentials only

Once you have created your impact model, your next step should be to identify and describe the (maximum of three) most effective drivers. Base this on your specific context. Too often I observe that leaders (in their own claim to be perceived as intelligent, analytical and far-sighted) seek academically clean formulations when they should actually choose simple, understandable and memorable words. The consistent focus on context prevents meaningless, interchangeable air or filler words from creeping into your communication - and therefore not triggering or supporting the desired effect.

In my work as an executive team coach, I regularly experience that transformations, reorganizations or other changes are communicated in a distant, apathetic and sober manner. Possible negative consequences are not addressed. The only thing is that the employees are not on the ball and figure out what they are in for. In such situations I put an object in front of the team. It stands for the culture (or the understanding of leadership, or the error culture, or the feedback culture). The intangible thus takes on a concrete form. Now I ask the leadership team: “Let’s assume that the corporate culture is a product (this object). What benefit does it provide to me as an employee, and why would I want to buy this product?” From the answers, identify what is really essential to your communication of the culture.

An example: A customer wanted a culture that enabled respectful cooperation (impact on behavior). She needed to move a rather reactive, risk-averse, rigidly structured manufacturing company to develop new business. Which aspects of this culture should she communicate? Which ones could she or did she want to do without?

She has decided to bet only on the trust card. Now there are numerous ways to talk about trust (giving trust to others, strengthening self-confidence, …). The customer believed that she herself would only trust someone if she could assume that she would not be lied to or manipulated. So her main driver for implementing the desired collaborative culture became continuous feedback. Employees were encouraged to ask for feedback and give feedback. This created trusting relationships between employees on the one hand and between them and leaders on the other. As a result, the psychological confidence to talk to each other rather than with each other, to express ideas, to encourage exchange - in short, to cooperate in a trusting manner - grew. Today, employees say they feel involved, that people are interested in their contribution, and that they can point out to each other when something is not meeting expectations.

Resolve resistance consistently

Your corporate culture is virtually the amalgam of all individual behaviors. Of course, there are always individuals who have little or nothing to do with the current culture, or who do not want to - or cannot - engage with it. This is only unfortunate if there are opinion leaders among them who trigger so-called “cognitive dissonance” through their behavior. This happens when employees expect a certain (culturally appropriate) behavior from colleagues or superiors, but the latter behave substantially differently. This confuses them and leads them to ask what is valid and whether it might not be safer for them to follow these opinion leaders. Never underestimate the effect of deviant behavior and take consistent, persistent and recognizable action against it. Allow me to consolidate for you here the statements of many leaders: “A cultural fit cannot be prescribed. Separate quickly from people who create cultural hallway damage.”

Conclusion: If you are concerned with corporate culture - and as leaders, you usually are 24/7 - allow yourself to formulate the impact of culture. Model your personal impact model and find the maximum three drivers that will help you trigger the desired impact. And be consistent in dealing with deviations. Because they undermine your initiative and inhibit collective movement.

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