How to Improve Company Culture without Away Days, Beanbags or a Foosball Table

Group culture is a powerful force. According to a Harvard study of over 200 companies a strong culture increases net income by 765 percent over a 10-year period (Kotter and Heskett, 1992). “When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive.” Groysberg, Lee, Price, Cheng, The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, HBR 2018.

Before I get into what you can do to improve culture for others I think it’s important to check you’re in a good mindset space yourself. When I’m fierce about sticking to boundaries on time and work hours it allows me to come to the office each day feeling refreshed and full of energy and heart, with lots to spare and share. I’m able to contribute a positive impact on culture.

However, when I allow my boundaries to slip and my hours to become longer it will come as no surprise that when I’m feeling tired, stale and crotchety I find it harder to instigate and lead strong culture. Since so many of us are affected by stress, overwork and burnout I encourage you to check-in on your own mental wellbeing before even considering implementing anything for anyone else. To hold space and build others up takes mental energy and we truly can’t give what we haven’t got enough of for ourselves.

Anyway, I recently read The Culture Code: The secrets of highly successful groups by Daniel Coyle. In it Coyle defines culture as “a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal”. In keeping with this I believe it’s really important to work on our soft skills to develop the culture we desire to see. Often when I speak to people about building culture they think of perks, away days/off-sites and team nights out as making and breaking culture. But from my experience and research while larger aspects like these can contribute to a positive workplace culture they are often met with employee contempt if the basics aren’t in place. It can be difficult to understand why, when these seemingly obvious contributors are in place, the corresponding metrics aren’t improving. But while the features above might tick all the relevant boxes they don’t take the place of considered, daily interactions and feedback that our people, as humans, so desperately crave.

Safety is the foundation on which strong culture is built

Safety, according to Coyle, is the foundation on which strong culture is built. Creating an environment of safety where team members can speak up and make mistakes is vital, as is permission for moments of vulnerability. Trust is built in the smallest of moments so don’t underestimate the power of the seemingly little, every day contributions. And as Brene Brown says in Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, “No trust, no connection.”

Saying good morning, thanking the team, catching people doing something right, asking questions, giving timely recognition for a job well done and celebrating small wins all buoy spirits and put credit in the emotional bank account. That, right there, is much of what builds your culture.

How enthusiastic do you think your teams are about going to a culture event with colleagues and management who are tolerating others’ poor performance or who haven’t noticed or acknowledged individual efforts in the last, well, ever? (And just as you’re about to get defensive and tell me that you give out praise and recognition All.The.Time consider that 58 percent of managers think they give enough feedback while 65 percent of employees say they want to receive more.)

58 percent of managers think they give enough feedback while 65 percent of employees say they want to receive more.

Candid, personal and informal feedback on a daily basis signals cues of belonging to our team members. Giving them some of our energy, acknowledging them as a unique and valued individual and indicating that our working relationship is set to continue will help them move from fear mode to safety and connection mode. But this has to be consistent and sustained. Our ancient, lizard brain is wired to need lots of these belonging cues, over and over. A hint of belonging is not enough. One or two signals is not enough.

Building connection with your teams

Here is a list of the types of group social interactions that can help build connection:

  • Abundance of eye contact
  • Positive touch such as high fives, fist-bumps, handshakes and hugs
  • Short energetic exchanges (as opposed to lengthy speeches)
  • Mixing at all levels; everybody speaks to everybody
  • Few interruptions
  • Lots of questions
  • Active listening
  • Laughter and humour
  • Small courtesies like opening doors and saying thank you

Depending on your company, some of these might be easier to start implementing than others. But anyone can choose to listen intently, offer courtesies, bring a touch of appropriate humour and ask questions that make someone feel acknowledged or valued in their role.

In Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord, Netflix’ former VP of HR, Jessica Neal, says “Culture is the strategy of how you work. And if people believe it is a strategy and that it is important, they will help you think about it deeply and try things.” If you consider culture in these terms you find it easier to get others on-board with creating change.

Culture is the strategy of how you work. – Jessica Neal

I chose to introduce a daily huddle (a 10 minute, stand-up meeting) to create a regular, purposeful opportunity to implement some of the above. We tie our company principles into the huddle, recognising where team members have demonstrated these by giving examples observed in the past 24 hours or so. Each team member does the same for another team member which helps demonstrate how we want our culture to look. These 10 minutes a day allow the energetic banter to flow, creates an opportunity for laughter and eye-contact with a field-based team and presents a chance for questioning, listening and thanks.

Collective character is vital to success. Focus on getting the culture right; the results will follow. James Kerr, Legacy

While there are other contributing factors the bottom line is that building great culture isn’t rocket-science. Who’d have thought that acting with empathy and kindness and treating others in the workplace like the human beings they are would be so good for business?

Whether you’ve already got the right people on your team and have company benefits in place or you’re still working on your recruitment strategy and fundamental policies there are things you can start doing today, right now, that could lead to a dramatic upturn in results. Everyone is empowered to do the things discussed above and anyone can start at anytime. What will you try?

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