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To create a better culture, define it with one word. Here’s how.

A great culture is something everyone wants, even your most jaded and negative employee.

It will also make a dramatic difference to your ability to withstand challenges and tough times, which begs the question, what are you learning about your culture as a result of the COVID19 crisis?

If you’ve been thinking about trying to change or improve your culture you may have met resistance because you talked about “culture change.”  These words are almost guaranteed to create a negative reaction. Change fatigued people will think “not another change program,” while others hear the message as their culture is “bad” and needs to change. This creates a reaction that is less than ideal and you will get the feeling they are not interested.  Nothing could be further from the truth. They are very interested and desperate to be part of a great culture.

The Challenge

If you want to improve culture your greatest challenge is to convince people that you are genuine, committed, and willing to engage them in the process. Once they believe, truly believe, that you will listen and engage them in the process they will contribute in ways you never imagined. A great culture is something everyone wants.

A different approach

So take a different approach. Instead of talking about culture talk purpose, or why the company exists. This is a conversation people want to have! Deloitte’s 2019 “Global Human Capital Trends” report found that employees want a career, purpose, and meaning from their work. They don’t want to hear about how much money the company is making, they want to hear about the greater contribution you are making in the world. You don’t need everyone in the company agreeing to the same purpose, but you do need to make sure they are aligned. Step one in any great culture transformation is to “Align with purpose.”

Keep it simple

Now that everyone understands the purpose of the company you can have simple and practical conversations about the culture you need to deliver that purpose. Don’t make the mistake of over complicating this conversation with surveys, graphs, charts, definitions, or other forms of insanity. Just have simple practical conversations with people about the attitudes and behaviours you need to deliver the purpose of the company.

The easiest way to do this is the summarise the conversation to one word. That’s right, just one word. The simpler the better. The idea is to get people talking. Your culture will come alive when people talk about it. You are not trying to define the culture. That will happen as people discuss the attitudes and behaviours needed to deliver your purpose. The intention is to get people having that conversation.

Do values work?

Let’s explore the alternative. Most companies try to define their culture by creating a set of values, each with a subset of behaviours that clearly defines what is expected of people. Is that working?

At the time VW committed the Dieselgate scandal one of their values was “Responsibility.” You can decide for yourself whether they demonstrated responsibility when they decided to deliberately cheat the emissions testing system. Values only work if they are discussed and understood so your objective should be to make it as easy as possible to have that discussion. You need to get people talking about the culture, and the easiest way to do that is to have a word that easily triggers the conversation.

Some examples

A retail group with outlets in train stations and airports decided they needed their culture to be “responsive.” They challenged their store managers to talk to their staff about they could be more responsive to their customers.  A state audit office decided they existed to improve the public service and focused on being “professional.”

A group of Prison Officers decided they existed to keep the community safe. This meant keeping prisoners locked up and releasing respectful and decent citizens when prisoners were finally released. They developed a mantra – “if they don’t learn respect from us who will they learn it from?” And decided their culture should be “respectful.” They then talked to each other about whether they were demonstrating respect.

Two simple conversations is all it takes

You can build a great culture by having two simple conversations. The first is to talk about why you exist. What is your purpose in the world, beyond making money? The second is to talk about the attitudes and behaviours you need to demonstrate to deliver that purpose. Summarise this conversation to one word so you can easily and effectively keep the conversation going. Remember this is a conversation people want to have. So, start the conversation and watch the magic happen!

Written by Ross Judd.

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Ross Judd
Ross Judd is a cultural engagement expert, creator of the A.D.A.P.T. process, and founder of Team Focus International Pty Ltd. Ross works with leaders to engage their workforce in the creation of a fantastic culture that will deliver strong business outcomes. He is the Author of Cultural Insanity: And the roadmap to Great Organisational Culture ($13.95). Ross Judd is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.