There’s a lot of talk these days about transforming company culture. But let’s define our terms. What exactly do we mean by the culture of a company? For it’s certainly not culture in the way we usually mean it: we’re not talking about works of creative expression here. After all, depending on your industry, works of creative expression are commodified.
One way of looking at it is that, by ‘company culture’, we’re talking about the play of interpersonal dynamics and the extent to which emotion and wellness are valued in a workplace.
Now, these are tricky things to track. In an environment where measurable elements like profit and output have traditionally been by far the most important considerations, more nebulous phenomena like interpersonal dynamics, emotion and wellness have taken a back seat.
But while they cannot be measured (staff surveys notwithstanding; more about them later), they are undoubtedly felt. And in a world where, more and more, greater emphasis is rightly being placed on our internal worlds, the fact that they are felt can no longer be easily ignored by business leaders.
As a leader, being charged with achieving measurable goals comes with the territory. But this is a new kind of challenge. Workplace culture is nebulous, and dealing with the nebulous is never easy.
Actually – correction – dealing with the nebulous can seem easy. It doesn’t lend itself to tracking, after all. When something cannot easily be measured, it’s also not easy to find out that you’re getting it wrong. You might only find out when it’s far, far too late: when good people start resigning; when people are signed off sick; when you notice you’re not getting many really excellent candidates applying to work for you
We can very casually pay lip service to things like wellness. We can do an anonymous staff survey, set up focus groups, offer wellness initiatives and make grand pronouncements about how being a great place to work is at the core of our business. We can produce a set of company values. Yet because the likes of wellness cannot be measured definitely, it’s easy to set initiatives up and then wash our hands of them, thinking ‘That’ll do.’
But paying lip service to culture transformation is even worse, arguably, than simply ignoring company culture entirely. If your workforce notices you’ve done this, you’ll introduce resentment into the mix. And that’s a very toxic ingredient. One part of what leads to workplace toxicity is the sense of gut-wrenching disconnect between a company’s public statements about its culture (whether to staff or to the wider world) and the reality as that culture is experienced in-house.
What this comes down to is that cultural transformation has to be constantly nurtured and it has to be nurtured – and seen to be nurtured – by those at the very top of the business. Work projects can be delegated; they can be left for a quarter and then picked up again. Company culture is not this kind of work project; it is the invisible network of interpersonal dynamics that pulsates through your workplace. And it is never on standby.