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9 minutes

Culture club?

It’s remarkable how many different things affect how an organisation behaves.

Some of the biggest factors may be where you’re based, how well trade is going in your market and what your competition is up to. Not to mention world events, such as tensions between countries you do business in.

On top of that, there are the needs, skills and personalities of all the people in your teams – plus, what’s happening in their personal lives.

As a manager, then, your challenge is to be alert to all the signals that are coming from those factors and figure out the correct management style to use in the moment, based on the people in your team.

The challenge gets even more complex when we turn to the personality of the organisation. Out of that soup of in-the-moment decision-making, every business evolves a set of norms for how it functions, treats its staff, handles key situations, and makes long-term plans.

That set of norms has a special term: culture. Every organisation has one – and it’s tightly linked to management style. Indeed, management style shapes culture, and culture feeds right back into how managers do their jobs.

So, there’s a couple of questions every manager needs to ask. What is company culture? And why is company culture important? Managers can get a lot of benefit from learning how to describe company culture, beyond just subjectively, and understand how culture works.

That’s what we’re going to explain. As well as showing how understanding culture can help not just improve decisions, but in part, answer the question – how to improve company culture?

We’ll outline a simple approach with some real world examples, all to help managers know how to change the way they approach things by getting some experience in challenging scenarios, and that’s where our Managing People courses come in.

Where Managing People courses help

So how does a manager learn to make the right decisions? Simply put, by taking on board the knowledge to identify the influencing factors, including culture, then putting it into practice in a range of different scenarios.

Here comes the shameless plug for the approach we took with our online programme, but the principles can be applied to any management development programme.

Our series of online courses and competency assessments provide an immersive, video-based experience that delves into a wide range of workplace scenarios at the fictional Rise & Dine company. The type of situations that happen in every organisation, every day. In each episode, the learner is acting the manager’s role in a soap opera and the organisation’s culture must be considered in every decision they make.

It’s vital to stress here that every single workplace culture is unique. Not just that – it may be expressed in different ways in different parts of the same business. For example, a situation that crops up in the warehouse at Rise & Dine, may be handled quite differently from how it’s handled in an outlet – which again may differ to how it’s handled at head office, and even a specific department, IT, finance, etc.

So, we’re not claiming that any course can deliver the right decisions for every situation, the skill is in taking everything into account. Rise & Dine’s scenarios highlight the right decisions for that culture, they are not necessarily correct for a similar situation in a different organisation if it has a different culture. No course could ever hope to capture the sheer variety that exists across the full spectrum of workplace cultures.

One size doesn’t fit all

A manager must think about: What is the right decision I must make at this moment, at this workplace, based on these signals I’m observing, when I need to manage and lead these specific people?. That’s the real skill a manager must develop and display.

Your own workplace may be quite different from Rise & Dine and will have its own ways of working. But spending time in this fictional setting provides a place for practicing and testing the reflexes of management decisions, based on understanding and observation.

More than that, though, example scenarios help managers to think about other crucial points: How do I define the culture and values that are happening around me? If I’ve never thought about this subject before in terms other than who’s shouting the loudest – or if I’ve just joined a new business or team and need to find my feet – what sort of process must I go through to properly understand the values and culture I’m part of?.

Knowing what process to go through and which questions to ask will help managers gather all the key information needed about the culture to inform management style.

First, though, let’s dust off a couple of big misconceptions about what company culture is and how to define culture in your workplace…

Busting myths

Thanks to a constant string of high-profile cases, the concept of culture is never far from the headlines. Whenever things go bad in a well-known organisation, the media dubs its culture ‘toxic.’ When specialists are sent into that workplace to put things right, we hear how they’re trying to make the culture ‘healthier.’

This seems to suggest that culture is something that’s based on people’s feelings – e.g., whether workers have been dismayed or inspired by their employer’s ‘vibe.’

But hang on a second… don’t lots of organisations write their ‘Values Statements,’ on their website, and walls, stating exactly what they believe in – and as a result what their cultures are based on? If those statements aren’t doing the trick and the culture is contradicting them, then something must change.

There are a couple of points to bear in mind:

Sure, the daily personal experience of what it’s like to be in a workplace is important. But that’s by no means the whole story.

That experience is made up of many layers stemming from a wide range of sources. For example, the people around you (particularly, but not exclusively, senior figures), plus the organisation’s history, sector, workstyles and even external stakeholders such as customers and suppliers.

All those layers are component parts – and the good news is, there are ways to unpack the engine of a company’s culture to figure out which human traits those parts set in motion.

A Values Statement can trot out all the buzzy words and terms it likes. But in the end, it will only ever express an ideal of an organisation’s culture. It will never be the culture itself. In fact, when things do go toxic, that’s often because the culture has wandered off from the script of the Values Statement in quite a big way.

Culture emerges from tangible things like processes and human behaviour. But a Values Statement is truthful only for as long as people buy into it and are willing to live it.

Open the box

OK, then – now we’ve had a look at what culture is and isn’t, let’s open the box and break down what it is in a structured way that’s easy to follow. Let’s explore the main factors that set an organisation’s tone.

Which principles does the organisation hold dear? How do those principles drive decision-making and the way employees act?

For example… A business may say that everything it does is based on driving creativity. So, look around and see how true you think that is. Do managers understand that staff need space to be creative? Does that come through in how people are working, and in the products and services the company delivers? Or are staff constantly mired in project deadlines and don’t have the headspace to follow through initial ideas?

What does business-as-usual staff behaviour look like? What do leaders and managers expect to see?

For example… Managers may say that they want staff to be considerate towards introverted colleagues, because often, the quieter ones have great ideas and even better work ethics. But what you notice is that most of the employees are over-the-top loud, dominating, and hostile to ‘shrinking violets.’

Branding, dress codes and the office’s character and décor tell you a lot about the company’s values and identity. Other signs are the frequency and format of team meetings and the nature of special celebrations.

For example… Let’s focus on the office. An open-plan setting may feel quite liberated and informal, which could have a certain energy. But it could also feel far too exposing, and you may worry there’s nowhere to go for private chats. Or perhaps the business is strung along a warren of corridors, keeping everyone in silos and making group interactions awkward.

Is the flow of information open or controlled?

For example… You may notice it’s either a written or unwritten rule to observe a strict hierarchy of ‘levels’ when it comes to conveying vital information. Even if you’re sure that it would be far more efficient to go straight to the senior figure who’s most directly involved and responsible, all the signs around you scream that this would be a dangerous break of protocol.

Do people care about their work? Have they lined up behind the company’s mission, vision and values and are willing to go above and beyond to support them?

For example… You may find that there’s a real fondness for the values, and the team who created them, within the fabric of the firm. Perhaps you often hear the values crop up in daily conversation, completely unprompted, and at times some of your colleagues even seem quite emotional about them. This is a fiercely engaged unit: loyal, united, passionate – and far more likely to be committed and occasionally burn the midnight oil than burn the carpet at 5pm.

Does the company welcome the thoughts of people from a wide range of backgrounds? Is that clear from its hiring policy and the construction of working groups and project teams?

For example… Look at the percentage makeup of the workforce at different levels, based upon gender, ethnicity and other social factors. A company that’s doing particularly well in this field may have societies – or, in larger organisations, whole employee networks – built around social groupings to foster a climate of mutual support. A good one may even have assembled a ‘shadow board’ to give those groups a role in advising senior staff.

Are employees confident they have enough breathing space to try things out and fail safely?

For example… A company could make failure – and the lessons from it – the subject of daily conversation, in an open, frank and non-judgmental way. It could gather staff round in a big, all-teams meeting to look at something that didn’t go right and explain why the business can still take away some positives from the experience. That would encourage people to try, then try again, repeatedly. Or it could go the other way: treat failure like something to be ashamed of, hurl blame at the people who were involved and then sweep the whole episode under the rug stifling the creativity that differentiates a team and entire organisation.

What does the organisation prioritise in the way it works with its customers and stakeholders?

For example… This can take all sorts of shapes. A clothing brand may focus on providing cheap goods so customers can head home with a bagful of bargains. But those customers may understand that the materials are not the best quality, and the supply chain is perhaps not the most ethical. Another brand may focus more on driving supply-chain ethics and product quality – but its price tags end up bigger. Looking at other stakeholders, perhaps a particular investor or interested party is exerting a dominant influence on your senior team, in a way that’s impacting their priorities – and, in turn, negatively affecting the company’s culture.

How well can the organisation flex or pivot to cope with unexpected shocks, especially in a more volatile environment?

For example… Shocks can come from events such as changes in trading conditions, a competitor’s extraordinary success (or even failure) that impacts a whole sector, or a flaw in a newly released product that now requires a recall and perhaps even a redesign. How well is the company set up to quickly and efficiently get ahead of those shocks and bounce back, rather than be stuck on the back foot and overwhelmed? Are employees free to throw around ideas and crack into the problem, or are they constrained by c-suite anxiety?

Detective work

Right – now we’ve set out the main, shaping factors behind culture, let’s imagine a recently joined manager as a sort of ‘culture detective.’

What methods should our sleuth use – and which corners should they prod and probe – to find out what makes their new workplace tick?

  • Direct observation: Case out the atmosphere. What are the main things you notice about people’s interactions? Do colleagues look open and helpful with one another, or cagey and strained? How are their chats shaped by the office setup and dress code?
  • Interviews and surveys: Get your notebook out. Gather as much first-hand intel as you can from a broad cross-section of staff about what being in the organisation is like for them.
  • Review corporate materials: What sort of clues can you pick up from how the company talks about itself in its comms? Check out its website, company policy, marketing leaflets, internal memos and its mission statement.
  • Meetings and decision-making? Who gets to speak in meetings and how decisions are made will tell you a lot about the company’s power dynamics, inclusiveness and teamwork.
  • Recognition and reward: Is the company more likely to honour team or individual effort?
  • Communication: Are you hearing mainly top-down or open dialogue? Are people good listeners and act on the information they are given? How is feedback given and received?
  • Work-life balance: Look at the firm’s approach to managing work itself – from core hours and holidays to hybrid working and every other aspect of flexibility offered.
  • Conflict resolution: Are tensions and disagreements resolved in an authoritative or collective way?
  • Historical context: How has the company’s story shaped its culture? Which key milestones have defined and redefined it?

Whatever our culture detective gleans from those points will not just help them with managing their colleagues. It will also inform their approach to people development, change management and strategic planning.

Culture clash?

Culture is also the ultimate litmus test. Understanding it helps managers gauge whether they are happy and motivated in their workplace. Or, if they’re unsure about that, whether there’s perhaps some hope of being happy there in the future.

When managers and organisations aren’t seeing eye to eye on culture, we call that ‘values incongruence.’

If, through having a complete grasp of an organisation’s culture, a manager decides that they will never be happy there and don’t belong, that is in many ways a positive thing.

It provides the manager with a steer for where they really should be – and that’s much better for their mental health than stringing out a situation that’s not working for everyone, including the manager’s team.

What next?

Armed with some questions to ask, categories to find out about and an approach to build a picture of the organisation, get started and start defining the culture in a way that you can use as a manager to inform your day-to-day decisions and to continually live the values of the organisation you’re aligned with for the benefit of yourself, your team and your organisation.

Putting our managing people courses to work

Our 7 episode Managing People course series and competency measurement tool has scenarios which focus on various types of  management styles and let a manager improve at deciding on the best decisions considering the culture around them.

One example is in episode 2, Wellbeing. It shows how to manage people positively and effectively and understand how to assess the mental health and wellbeing of your team. There are also techniques you can use which are shared within the Managing People course, such as WELL communication tips. Improving team wellbeing and being aware of this can be part of improving the company culture and having a positive impact.

Want to see how understanding culture can help your managers and drive improvements? Get in touch to see how we can help.