Workplace culture and how you can influence it.

Workplace culture and how you can influence it.
Photo by Mimi Thian / Unsplash

When we are looking from the outside at a new job, we not only want to learn facts about the potential new role, we want to understand what it will feel like to work in that team or organisation. However, culture is a concept which is notoriously difficult to define.  So what is 'culture' in the workplace and how can we as individuals and leaders influence it?

Culture refers to a set of attitudes and values that dictate our experience of a team or organisation. There are a number of elements which combine to make up how we experience culture in a workplace context.  These include the physical environment, the organisational vision that we are explicitly told about, expectations that are set either formally in contracts or informally during onboarding, as well as the actual ways of working in day to day life, modes of behaviour and the many unsaid 'rules' that govern how people interact.  

Culture can be summed up as "What matters" and "how we treat people around here".  Regardless of what the organisation formally communicates about its desired culture, "what matters" dictates which stories get told, how success is measured, how setbacks are handled, how we interact day to day and how communications are handled both individually and as a team.

“You can have a good strategy in place, but if you don’t have the culture and the enabling systems that allow you to successfully implement that strategy, the culture of the organization will defeat the strategy.” Richard Clark, former Merck CEO

Many thought leaders in management, including former Merck CEO Richard Clark, speaking to researchers for Harvard Management Update 2008 have emphasised the importance of culture in determining an organisations' success. If you are in a leadership role, you have a key part to play in defining the culture. Consider what you would you like your team to feel about their work and what are the traits that you would want people to recognise in you?

Perhaps you are a stickler for quality, frequently spotting problems before they occur and catching errors. You may take pride in your work and feel this is useful and essential contribution to the organisation's success and your interventions communicate that accuracy matters.

Challenge: do you communicate a positive intent and encourage individual ownership and continuous learning mindset in your colleagues before 'saving the day' with your own 'correcting' behaviours?

Maybe you are the friendly face of the organisation, regularly going out of your way to make others feel welcome and valued? Your proactive outreach may mean people feel they can come to you with anything.

Challenge: does your openness sometimes interfere with your workload or does excess chatter reduce the efficiency of your team?  If so, you might also benefit from establishing boundaries such as setting times aside for 'focus work' and marking them publicly in calendars with 'Do not disturb' status. This may help you to set a more balanced tone.

You might be the type of leader who takes a more consistently task-focused and introspective approach, in which case it is likely that you are modelling a culture of hard work and diligence.  

Challenge: Do your team also know they can approach you when they need support?  Consider how you can create a sense of psychological safety and a supportive environment for them to thrive - if you are unsure, ask them what they need from you and what would be helpful.  

Unless we specifically create mini 'rituals' to codify the culture that we wish to create, we may simply go around blindly reinforcing some negative aspects of culture that we did not intend.

So, if you want an open, communicative team, make sure there are regular opportunities for sharing good news and highlighting issues. If you want accuracy and efficiency, actively encourage it when you see attention to detail being practised and share success stories based on these qualities. Reinforce these with visible examples in your shared workspaces where possible. Online you might consider what your background says for example, or what verbal signals you give in the way you open and close meetings.  

You need not be an executive or in charge of a full rebrand on the company culture and values statements, every day-to-day interaction you have with the colleagues is an opportunity for you to re-inforce "what matters" and "how we treat people around here" and each micro-behaviour either builds up or works against the creation of a positive and successful working environment and culture.

What tone will you set?

Maggie and Joanne