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 growing productivity often surfaces from these discussions.

Most professionals inherently know that employee engagement and culture are related. Unfortunately,  they often miss a crucial element. The culture represents the collective behaviour of people in the organization. The conditions in the workplace environment drive those behaviours.

Unfortunately, some business leaders mistakenly believe that new rewards and recognition programs will engage employees sufficiently to boost productivity and profits.

Culture represents collective behaviour

What is often missing from this calculation is the role the workplace environment plays in shaping worker behaviours. 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 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 team to identify a set of shared 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 produce cultural change have not been implemented.

Our people are our most valued asset

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. Essentially though nothing changes in the workplace environment experienced by the workers. What would lead anyone to believe, under those conditions, they are a valued asset and, therefore, inspire them to alter their behaviour? As a result, worker behaviour 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 do business here. The old tongue-in-cheek admonition circulated among parents regarding the 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 behaviour?

So what mechanics drive improving corporate culture? Since a culture represents the collective behaviour of people in the organization, and conditions in the workplace environment cause those behaviours, it makes sense that corporate culture changes when we change the behaviours of the majority of the workers. But what drives worker behaviour?

Using the example of the 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?  Who or what could allow them to devote more 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, a computer, and a modern 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, inflexible production schedules, excessively long working hours, lack of clearly defined job responsibilities, inequitable accountability, and bosses who lack essential 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 behaviours 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 behaviour? Or do they direct steps toward improving the workplace environment? A thriving cultural conversion will focus on the workplace environment and management actions and behaviours that shape the workplace environment.

Management determines the work processes. They set policies and procedures and allocates resources. Management supplies equipment and tools. They schedule the work and assign workers. Management demonstrates the behaviours 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 leadership changes their actions and behaviours, the management subculture begins to change, as does the workplace environment. When workers notice a change in the work environment, their behaviours will start to shift, and, as a result, the organizational culture will begin to change. This process aligns the “aspirational” culture and the functional culture, representing how the organization conducts its business. It all starts with management creating an improved workplace environment.

Management must take the lead

Both verbal and nonverbal, management communications stemming from their actions and behaviours 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 behaviours 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 first changing their actions and behaviours if they genuinely expect workers to follow. Not doing this is why so many otherwise well-intentioned efforts to improve corporate culture fail.

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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.