Matt Tenney, Contributor
Organizational culture is the primary factor for determining how well an organization executes on every other aspect of organizational performance. It is also the most important competitive advantage an organization can have because it’s what makes an organization unique.
But developing a strong culture is just the first step of the process. To maintain a winning culture that helps employees thrive requires effective management, not just of employees and strategy, but the culture itself.
Culture can be difficult for some leaders to establish, but it has a much greater impact on the organization’s results than strategy. Though many leaders recognize the importance of developing a strong culture to the health of their organization, they can find the long-term management of a sustainable, caring culture that engages employees a daunting task.
Core values are the building blocks of a strong organizational culture. When leaders effectively operationalize culture management by authentically reinforcing core values with employees and “walking the talk” (as the saying goes), they see improvements at every level of the organization.
A well-managed organizational culture can make business strategies more successful, boost employee engagement and retention, and help the organization better serve customers.
Below are 11 essential steps that will help you operationalize core values to manage your organization’s culture.
Step 1: Refine and Reinforce Your Organization’s Mission and Vision
The key to getting employees to buy in and be conservators of your organization’s culture is to clearly define, regularly refine, and continually reinforce the organization’s mission and vision.
The mission and vision serve as the foundation for the core values you will develop as a framework for culture. When employees understand the mission and the individual roles they play in helping to achieve the organization’s vision, it gives the work they do more purpose, which, in turn, will keep them engaged and motivated.
When interwoven with all aspects of a company’s strategy, including policies, procedures, benefits, and perks, culture will reflect an awareness of employee needs and connect the dots between organizational core values and the work employees do.
Step 2: Consistently Model Core Values
A leader’s perceptions and values play a significant role in defining and developing organizational culture. Because of this, strong leadership is key to managing organizational culture and continuously reinforcing those core values with employees.
Since organizational culture is embedded in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns, it is important to guide employees toward the behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns that you want to see more of in your organization through modeling core values.
Culture should not only develop in an authentic way, but it must be managed in an authentic way to produce long-term positive results. Therefore, it is important for leaders to continually set the tone for the culture they want in their organization by demonstrating their dedication to the values the culture is built on.
When senior leadership demonstrates dedication to core values by modeling behaviors that align with these values, it guides employees toward similar behaviors. That dedication should be strong and observable by employees daily—whether in meetings, emails, or one-to-one meetings.
Setting an example for employees to follow and reinforcing core values regularly will keep employees always mindful of culture and how their behaviors align with the organization’s culture.
Step 3: Set Clear, Attainable, and Measurable Goals
When setting goals for the organization, consider the individual roles your team members will play in achieving those goals and provide guidance in helping them set their own goals.
Setting clear, measurable goals that are aligned with core values and fostering accountability helps employees perform at a higher level, better manage their workloads, and helps them identify where they need to make improvements.
Goal-setting also helps employees gain a better understanding of the important role they play in the organization and how essential their jobs are to helping the organization realize its vision. This is another way to reinforce culture with teams while also boosting performance.
We recently sat down with author Stacey Barr and discussed the value of utilizing effective measurement and measuring actions, not people.
Barr pointed out ways in which goals and measures can positively impact culture, saying “Wherever we can encourage people to create their own measures that are aligned with the goals of the organization, we can positively change the company culture.”
Step 4: Demonstrate Care for Employees
The most important aspect of culture is the level of care it consistently demonstrates for employees.
When leaders take care of employees, they feel more valued and are able to perform better. Ensuring employee well-being is a part of your culture is essential to their success.
Understanding employees’ changing needs, especially during this era of constant change, and being aware of their need for a work-life balance that supports their mental and physical health is so important.
According to author Linda Holbeche, “Managers need to be able to show empathy and provide the kind of support that people might need. Not everybody, not all the time, but to understand what each person needs.”
As we’ve mentioned before, the most important part of a strong company culture is having a senior management team that truly cares about employees and understands their needs.
Senior leadership should consistently demonstrate that care since all other aspects of company culture are improved when organizations put people first.
Step 5: Deal Swiftly with Toxic Situations
Despite our best efforts to avoid them, toxic situations can arise and can adversely impact employee engagement, performance, and well-being.
Top leadership can ensure organizational culture stays true to a company’s mission, vision, and values by addressing toxic situations as soon as they arise so they don’t impact morale or cause irreparable damage to the positive culture leaders and their teams have worked to create.
Toxic situations can involve harassment, microaggressions, unequal treatment of staff members, or behaviors from senior management that devalue employees and make them feel expendable. These issues can do significant damage to organizational culture.
When not managed properly, a company’s culture can make it less adaptable to change, and it can alienate employees.
To weather the future, it is essential for leaders to nurture the development of a culture that consistently demonstrates to employees that they are valued and vital to the success of the organization.
Step 6: Give Feedback Regularly
Feedback is essential to maintaining a high-performing team of engaged employees and is a great way to reinforce cultural values.
Whether your feedback is praise for the accomplishments of an employee or a constructive critique of their performance, employees need feedback.
In a feedback-rich culture, employees receive regular, helpful feedback from direct supervisors. In turn, they are empowered and encouraged to provide meaningful feedback to co-workers and leadership.
This can keep a healthy culture on track or help leaders see where improvements can be made.
While all forms of feedback are important for managing organizational culture, recognition is particularly important because it meets a core human need for both the employee and the manager.
Meeting this need is a key aspect of a strong company culture and is essential to the successful management of organizational culture because it increases job satisfaction, employee engagement and retention, and quality of work.
Step 7: Maintain Alignment Between Philosophy and Practice
Leaders should constantly fine-tune culture. This means providing what employees need to succeed but also addressing inconsistencies between cultural philosophy and daily practice that could create a less-than-engaging environment for employees.
It is your job as a leader to ensure you provide the ideal working conditions for employees to thrive. But it is also leadership’s role to identify and eliminate inconsistencies between cultural philosophy and daily practice that could create a toxic environment for employees.
Policies and procedures should be revisited regularly to ensure there is alignment between the systems that have been implemented and core values.
An organization that doesn’t have a culture that authentically demonstrates core values by putting those values into practice on a daily basis will see high turnover rates, lack of employee engagement, actively disengaged employees, and poor performance.
These kinds of inconsistencies can lead to a work environment that is toxic and undermines any efforts of senior leadership to maintain a people-focused culture.
Step 8: Offer Learning and Development Opportunities
According to a recent survey, 80% of CEOs cite the need for new skills as their biggest business challenge.
New research has also shown that the second most important factor in workplace happiness for employees is the opportunity for development.
Because learning is essential for employees to develop new skills and find fulfillment in their work, companies that offer learning and development opportunities to their employees are laying the groundwork for long-term success with a team of engaged employees who do their jobs well and have cultural buy-in.
Learning is a particularly important element of a sustainable business culture because it positively impacts strategy, innovation, employee engagement, employee retention, and many other elements of an organization.
Whether it’s through onsite training, online courses, or just re-examining current processes and past mistakes in an effort to reinforce a continuous improvement mindset informed by core values, the value of providing these unique learning opportunities for employees to grow and develop is immeasurable.
Step 9: Build Trust
In order to keep culture always fresh on the minds of employees, trust in leadership is a necessity.
Modeling core values, demonstrating care for employees, offering them flexibility and autonomy when possible, and providing regular feedback are all ways leaders can build and maintain trusting relationships with employees.
To build trust with employees requires leaders to embrace conflict and crisis, rather than punishing dissent or burying conflict.
Marissa Levin, founder and CEO of Successful Culture says, “The organizations with the highest trust recognize that asking for help is a two-way street. The most emotionally connected leaders let their employees know that they need their help to build the best organizations possible.”
When employees trust leadership, they trust the organization’s culture to provide a satisfying and harmonious work environment for them. Leaders who continually work on trust-building are ensuring a strong organizational culture that will keep employees engaged.
Step 10: Coaching and Mentoring
Employees can benefit greatly from coaching and mentoring. It can help them improve their performance, and it helps to reinforce core values.
When you reinforce core values through coaching, you reinforce culture by continually showing that you are invested in guiding employees in their behaviors, recognizing them for their contributions, and suggesting areas for improvement.
This level of attention to an employee’s professional development makes them feel like a valued member of the team, engages them in their work, and helps them see the impact they are making within the organization.
Through coaching, leaders support and help employees understand the why and how of an organization, which helps reinforce culture and improve core value alignment. Coaching heightens employee awareness and has a tremendous impact on employees’ sense of belonging.
Step 11: Make Inclusion a Priority
You may see the words “inclusion” and “diversity” used interchangeably, but, as a Gallup article on the subject points out, they are not the same thing.
According to the article, inclusion refers to a cultural and environmental feeling of belonging: “Inclusion has to be understood as very different from diversity because simply having a wide roster of demographic characteristics won’t make a difference to an organization’s bottom line unless the people who fall into any one demographic feel welcomed.”
Inclusion can be defined as the extent to which employees feel accepted, respected, and valued. It can also help gauge the extent to which employees feel encouraged to fully participate in the organization.
As it turns out, inclusion is extremely important to many workers just entering the workforce. According to a recent article in Big Think, an organization’s commitment to inclusion and diversity is important to 83% of Gen Z job seekers.
Part of culture management is ensuring your organization’s culture fosters an inclusive work environment in which employees feel appreciated for their unique traits and skills and comfortable showing up every day as their authentic selves.
An important, but often overlooked, aspect of culture management is regularly re-evaluating seemingly innocuous practices embedded in a company’s culture that could potentially make employees feel less welcome.
Employees who feel a sense of belonging in the organization will experience more alignment between their values and the organization’s core values.
Managing Organizational Culture Takes a Team Effort
Frances Hesselbein once said, “A single person doesn’t change an organization, but culture and good people do.”
An organization will experience many changes, but staying true to the culture and core values that have guided it toward success can create change that will not only positively impact employees, but can also create a ripple effect of positive change in society.
In managing organizational culture, leaders will find that their employees are their greatest assets and greatest allies.
As with organizational culture development, managing organizational culture starts with strong leadership that provides the framework for an authentic, caring culture to flourish—and continues to grow organically from the bottom up.
When managed well, a strong organizational culture will keep employees united with a shared sense of purpose that motivates them and gives meaning to their work.
This is why culture management isn’t just the responsibility of leadership; it is the responsibility of every team member in the organization. When well-managed and reinforced often, employees will ensure that the organization stays true to its mission, vision, and values.
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Matt Tenney is an active CEO who aspires to create the best workplace culture in the world. Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence. Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings. His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.