Want to Improve Your Corporate Culture?

Learn Why So Many Well-Intentioned Efforts Fail

By Fred Stawitz

The idea that corporate culture has a dramatic impact on the success of an organization has played prominently in discussions of how to increase competitive advantage in challenging economic times. The desire to improve employee engagement as a way of increasing productivity often surfaces from these discussions. While most professionals inherently know that employee engagement and culture are somehow related, they often miss a key element of the equation: culture represents the collective behavior of people in the organization and those behaviors are driven by conditions in the workplace environment. Unfortunately, some business leaders mistakenly believe that a new rewards and recognition program will engage employees sufficiently to boost productivity and profits.

Culture represents the collective behavior of people.

What is often missing from this calculation is the role the workplace environment plays in shaping worker behaviors. Take for instance temperature. Assume two workers are performing the same task. Which one is going to be more safely and productively engaged? The one who is sweating and miserable in a 95° F ill-equipped shed or the one working in a climate-controlled 72° F office? What about a worker where the boss barks orders and berates performance or the one whose manager teams up with her to provide the tools and training she needs to do the job?

When considering a strategy for improving corporate culture, the common practice of tasking a tiger team to identify a set of common values and directing all employees to adhere to them is icing on a cake that may not yet exist. Management can’t reasonably expect a different culture if the things that actually produce cultural change have not been put in place.

Our People are Our Most Valued Asset! Really?

We’ve all seen banners at corporate facilities proclaiming Our People are Our Most Valued Asset! Really? Maybe there are some recognition ceremonies and social events but essentially nothing changes in the workplace environment experienced by the workers. What would lead anyone to believe, under those conditions, that they are a valued asset and, therefore, inspire them to alter their behavior? As a result, worker behavior doesn’t change, and the culture remains as it was. All that is new is the proclamation of an “aspirational” corporate culture on a banner which in reality is misaligned with the functional culture that demonstrates how we actually do business here. The old tongue-in-cheek admonition circulated among parents regarding instruction of offspring, do as I say, not as I do, rings as ineffectively true in the workplace as it does in the home.

What drives worker behavior?

So what mechanics actually drive improving corporate culture? Since culture represents the collective behavior of people in the organization and those behaviors are driven by conditions in the workplace environment, than it makes sense that corporate cultural changes when we change the behaviors of the majority of the workers. But what drives worker behavior? Using the example of temperature of the work area and root cause analysis, attention shifts to management. What other elements of the workplace environment do management control that could reduce stress on workers allowing them to devote more of attention and energy to safe and productive action? What about access to the necessary resources and tools? Who would produce better results during a year-end closing of the corporate books, a clerk with a spreadsheet and a calculator or one with a computer and a contemporary accounting management system? And who approves funding for a computer and accounting management system? Management of course.

Numerous studies reveal that when stress increases past an optimum level, workers fall into a downward spiral of decreasing productivity and more mistakes leading to complete burnout. Temperature is one factor influencing worker stress. Other factors include IT system reliability, unreasonable production schedules, excessively long working hours, lack of clearly defined job responsibilities, inequitable accountability, and bosses who lack basic management and leadership skills to surface a few. Business leaders who are genuinely interested in improving the corporate culture will take a serious look at how management actions and behaviors can introduce unnecessary stress into the workplace.

All roads lead through the workplace environment.

So when members of the C-suite set out to improve the corporate culture, it makes a critical difference where they focus their efforts. Does management only target altering worker behavior? Or do they direct efforts toward improving the workplace environment? A successful cultural conversion will focus on the workplace environment and management actions and behaviors that shape the workplace environment. Management determines the work processes. Management sets the policies and procedures. Management allocates resources. Management supplies equipment and tools. Management schedules the work. Management assigns workers. Management demonstrates the behaviors workers model. Ultimately, each action management takes either increases or decreases worker stress and, thereby, impacts employee engagement.

There is no direct path management can take to create a sustainable improvement in the corporate culture. All roads to cultural change lead through the workplace environment. When management changes their actions and behaviors, the management subculture begins to change as does the workplace environment. When workers notice a change in the work environment their behaviors will begin to shift and, as a result, the organizational culture will start to change. This process is what brings alignment between the “aspirational” culture and the functional culture which actually represents how the organization conducts its business. It all begins with management creating an improved workplace environment.

Management must take the lead.

Management communications, verbal and nonverbal, stemming from their actions and behaviors either support these efforts or thwart them. Consistently open and honest communications are essential if management expects workers to trust that the leadership is fully committed to a new way of doing business and not just another PR ploy to push a nice, public-pleasing message about the “aspirational” culture. Otherwise, workers will not risk employing behaviors that are inconsistent with the functional culture. Workers want to see that the management subculture and the workplace environment is changing. Therefore, management must take the lead by changing their actions and behaviors, first, if they genuinely expect workers to follow. Not doing this is why so many otherwise well-intentioned efforts to improve corporate culture fail.

Helping businesses create effective solutions by shaping a culture that engages employees in safe, productive, and sustainably profitable operations. Created and managed technical training programs for US Space Shuttle Program, Shell/Bechtel energy venture, and large pipeline operations that maximize safety and productivity while ensuring regulatory compliance. International speaker on human factors in the workplace and disruptive, emergent digital technologies. Featured on CNN Headline News, a PBS special, and quoted in a Special Congressional Quarterly Report. Recipient of several prestigious awards including the Leadership 500 LEAD Award. Author of several highly praised and award-winning books. Successful publisher guiding writers through the process of creating marketable books with global distribution.