Creating A Compelling Company Culture? Pay Attention To What ISN'T Being Said.
Listen to what is not being said to understanding what your company culture
To define your company culture, you need to start with the DNA of your company, the values. The first step of the values definition process involves surfacing the values that are embedded in the company. Even in very early stage start-ups, a culture is evolving and developing day by day. How and when people arrive to work, how the work days are structured, how the business is measured, who is hired, how people are managed, how they are rewarded, how they are onboarded, how meetings are run, the level of responsibility they are given, what is perceived to be important – these things become habitual, behavioural and often unquestioned manifestations of a set of values. Once the current values have been surfaced, the company needs to describe them in a way that fits with the language the people who work their use, and with the company’s brand. The values need to be described in an authentic manner.
The crucial next step, which most companies fail to take, is defining the expected behaviors associated with each value. By defining the expected behaviors for each value you remove the possibility for employees to interpret the values differently. Take teamwork, for example. One person could interpret the word teamwork to mean 'a group of people working together, for a common purpose and a common goal.' To another person in the same team, the word teamwork could be interpreted as meaning 'the team always comes first.' Both are talking about the same thing but could end up taking different decisions given the same set of circumstances. This is the reason why defining each value’s expected behavior is so vital.
There is an essential element for teams going through this values definition process to remember to focus on: as well as listening carefully, during the values definition phase, to what arises in terms of values, the team should also pay close attention to what is not being said. To the hidden, secret or silent values that are at play in the organisation. In a VUCA environment in which both life and commerce are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, we are driven by the psychological need for stability, certainty and predictability. Their absence generates anxiety and stress, and if this isn’t talked about, it can end up taking root in unhealthy and unwanted ways in the organizations we lead or work for.
Addressing this isn’t always easy, but it is incredibly important. It’s a peculiar feature of humanity that we try to show our best side, even when we deliberately seek out help and pay for someone like an external consultant to come in and help us. There is something in-built in people that tries to hide the imperfections and act as if we have got it all together. In terms of addressing values and culture, this can be quite pernicious, because like it or not, every organization has unconscious values that get embedded deep into the company, and if these are not addressed, the unconscious values that lurk under the surface can become dominant. It is equally if not more critical to surface these hidden or silent values alongside defining the ones that the organization consciously wants to embed.
1. What aren’t people saying?
Simply keeping in mind, the question, “What are people not saying?” can shed light on some of the things that people find harder to talk about. For example, the CEO says she wants more feedback from the team, but when they try to give her that feedback she snaps at them.
2. Pay attention to how you are feeling.
Traditionally, emotions and business have been thought of as polar opposites. Business, the collective narrative went, required our minds; all that ‘touchy-feely’ stuff belonged elsewhere. Yet we all have emotions, and in recent years we have collectively begun to appreciate how helpful and even vital emotional intelligence can be in business. When thinking about values, noticing if there is a knot in your stomach or a sense of excitement in your chest, or a feeling of heaviness across your shoulders, or the buzz of anxiety, can provide you with data about the actual, lived culture in the organization. You might know what it is like to work in a culture of fear, and there are a lot of famous examples of companies where people run on anxiety. Underpinning that fear is a set of values, which, if not addressed and talked about, can make the wrong kind of difference.
3. Pay attention to the questions that you have about the culture – and what is off limits.
When thinking about the culture, notice what you’re curious about – but also pay attention to what seems off limits. What aren’t you allowed to ask about, question or discuss? Taboo areas can reveal a lot about a company’s culture. There needs to be a willingness from the leadership to address the tough stuff to create the best culture possible. This is almost always uncomfortable, but if it is done with accountability and keeping a relentless focus on creating a culture that works, it is also worth it.
4. Pay attention to your assumptions.
As well as noticing what you are curious about and what feels ‘off limits’, also try to reflect on what you are taking for granted about the culture. Do you assume, for example, that people should be in the office five days a week? If so, why? What value might underpin that, particularly in an age of increasingly flexible working and with the compelling Gallup statistics showing that the vast majority of people would feel more engaged and committed to their workplaces if they had the option to work remotely or more flexibly. Alternatively, do you assume that salaries are set by HR and are not up for debate? What if there were other ways of working? At Makers Academy, for example, employees set their own salary.
Addressing culture through this lens can be challenging, but the alternative – allowing unwanted values to take root as behaviors and practices that, once embedded, can be hard to eradicate and negatively impact the organization in multiple ways – is far from ideal. On the contrary, paying attention to what isn’t being said can surface empirical data that is both fascinating and useful.