Workplace culture

S. Chris Edmonds is a speaker, author, and executive consultant who helps leaders create powerful, positive, productive workplace cultures. The founder and CEO of the Purposeful Culture Group recently checked in with us to share his insight on establishing workplace culture. Here’s what he had to say:

What’s your leadership philosophy?

I believe leadership is at its best when it is in service to team members and customers. Leaders have the responsibility to align skills and passion to help team members serve effectively, to deliver on performance promises and to feel valued while doing it.

Why is establishing a workplace culture essential to business today?

Every organization – small business, department or global company – has a culture. The problem is that most work cultures are dull at best and frustrating at worst. TinyPulse – in their 2014 Culture and Engagement report – found that only 21 percent of employees feel strongly valued at work (!). Gallup’s data shows that only 34 percent of employees are engaged at work – and that number has not changed significantly in the past decade. A powerful, positive, productive culture is a fun, vibrant, creative workplace to hang out in. It attracts talented, engaged players. It helps retain talented, engaged players! A high performing, values-aligned culture boosts engagement by 40 percent, customer service by 40 percent, and results and profits by 35 percent..

What are the risks of ignoring the culture component?

Culture drives everything that happens in organizations, good or bad. If leaders are not intentional about the quality of their workplace culture, if the only thing that gets measured, monitored and rewarded is results – people will bend or break the rules so that they “win.” Players yell and scream. They withhold information. They dismiss, discount and disrespect their peers. Power and politics become the coin of the realm. Good citizenship – treating people with trust, respect and dignity in every interaction – cannot thrive in that environment.

Where should organizations start when establishing a culture?

Their culture is already established. What leaders must do is stop and assess the quality of their current or “operating” culture. This is a scary proposition for many leaders, because very few leaders have experienced successful culture change, much less led a successful culture change. An outside consultant can help with this process. As an “uninterested third party,” a consultant can ask tough questions and make honest assessments.

When I conduct this “discovery” phase for organizations, I interview key leaders and select next level leaders to gauge the clarity of performance expectations, the clarity of values expectations and accountability for both. I also examine any morale surveys or engagement surveys which provide additional perceptions of the way the culture operates today. I present my findings in an interview summary and recommendations document for review by company leaders.

What is an organizational constitution? Why do you advocate for them?

There are three steps to my proven process (as outlined in my latest book, The Culture Engine) – leaders define their desired culture, they align all practices to that desired culture and they periodically refine their desired culture. An organizational constitution is the foundation of the “define” step. It is a formal statement of the organization’s desired culture. This document enables leaders to make values – how people are treated daily – as important and measurable as results.

An organizational constitution specifies the company’s* present-day servant purpose (who the company services and to what end), values and behaviors, strategies, and goals. Most organizations have some semblance of strategies and goals in place, so those two pieces are usually easy. Few organizations have a defined servant purpose or values defined in observable, tangible, measurable terms. The vital element in an organizational constitution is formalizing values and defining them in measurable behaviors. By crafting a specific set of behaviors that “great citizens” embrace daily, leaders can model them, coach them and redirect others if they’re not modeling those behaviors.

Behaviorally defined values are a lot of work. They’re easy to define. They’re much harder to live every day! The question I hear is “Why should we have to define how people should behave with each other? People know how to be nice.” People may know how but they’re clearly not behaving nicely. Engagement is stagnant, people don’t feel strongly valued at work, etc. Values and behaviors create liberating rules that specify exactly how people are to act and treat each other daily at work.

The “align” step takes 18 months or longer. Leaders must be role models of these desired valued behaviors. Once those valued behaviors are announced, scrutiny of the leaders’ every plan, decision, and action will be heavy. Only when leaders model desired valued behaviors will the shift gain credibility – and others (team leaders and team members) will align their practices to those behaviors. *Though I use an overall company application for the organizational constitution here, it works beautifully with intact teams, departments, regions, small business, etc.

How often should organizations revisit and/or revise this constitution?

This “refine” step typically happens annually for strategies and goals. The company’s servant purpose rarely changes – nor does the company’s values. Every two years or so leaders need to assess the valued behaviors. Some of their initial valued behaviors may not be an issue any longer (people have embraced them deeply) and new “odd” behaviors have popped up which may require revised valued behaviors to quash them.

What sorts of behaviors or actions should be “outlawed” from organizations in their constitutions? What are killers of culture?

There are a lot of bad behaviors that leaders tolerate in organizations around the globe today. A list of those bad behaviors would be long – and depressing! A more actionable approach is best: we define desirable behaviors, not undesirable ones. We craft a clear picture – and clear behaviors – of what we want from company leaders and employees daily. The foundation of valued behaviors is the requirement for everyone in the company to treat others – peers, bosses, customers, suppliers, ANYONE – with trust, respect and dignity in every interaction. That doesn’t mean people can’t argue about the merits of an idea or a market to pursue or a product’s features. Ideas deserve assertive discussion – and aligned agreement. What your valued behaviors do is outline the requirement that people are honored even while ideas are vibrantly debated!

What leaders and organizations do you believe have done an exceptional job at building a positive workplace culture?

WD-40 is an amazing organization with an embedded tribal culture of clear values and high performance expectations. I interviewed CEO Garry Ridge in The Culture Engine. What he and his leadership team have created – and actively maintain – is a fun, productive, respectful global culture that wow’s customers every day.

Can you share one of your favorite cultural makeover success stories?

Talk about an organization that went through the process of establishing a workplace culture and how it paid off for them.

The culture process at the Banta Catalog Group (now a part of RR Donnelley) in 2005 was one of the “fastest to embrace” their desired culture of any client I’ve worked with over the past 20 years. They had conducted an engagement survey in 2004 that revealed their’s was the least engaged plant of eight in the company system – at less than 30 percent engagement. Mark Deterding, division president, reached out to me soon after. I began working with Mark’s leadership team to outline the process and begin the “define” stage.

It took Mark’s team about four months to craft a servant purpose, values and valued behaviors. They got feedback from their 600 employees on their organizational constitution then “flipped the switch.” Leaders began living the valued behaviors – and employees noticed. Within six months engagement doubled (to 62 percent), customer service increased by 40 percent, and results and profits grew by 35 percent. These results are typical – but usually it takes 18 months to gain that kind of traction! Mark’s team did a thorough job of living their values – and their plant was very ready for this change.

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