One in an occasional series on best business practices.
When beginning a new business, few entrepreneurs include an organizational “culture” in their plan. Often they think that the product or service itself stands for the culture of the business. Or that a mere values statement about the product or service (high quality, reliable, putting people first) translates into a culture of the business.
While that might sometimes be true, it is only one part of the story. Even when overt mission, values, or culture statements are articulated, (as they should be), they are only pieces of paper until methods and structures within the business are developed to give the statement(s) active, ongoing meaning.
Once developed, these methods must also be followed.
For example, many businesses will include in a values or mission statement their commitment to, “…the highest standards of ethics and integrity in the service we provide and in our responsibility to our customers, our employees, etc.” The “highest standards of ethics and integrity,” provides a lofty goal, and one well worth aspiring to. What’s needed next is a map of how your business will get there.
Business culture is actually determined by demonstrated values. How employees are treated, accounting methods, cash flow issues, community relationships with other businesses and government officials, and a raft of procedures for feedback, professional development, conflict resolution, and discipline all determine the realities of a business culture. Having these elements written as a cogent plan offers the guide. But living the values reveals the truth.
Demonstrated values arise from what is experienced on a day-to-day basis at work, by clients or customers, and in business to business operations. In the best scenario, demonstrated values reflect articulated values, resulting in happy, motivated employees and positive external relationships across all fronts. Generally this is a result of leading and interacting through inspiration, encouragement, transparency, and personal example.
In worst case scenarios, lofty values and culture statements clash on the ground with office politics, secretive machinations, a culture of fear and intimidation, and poor financial management. If you say you value people, but regularly yell at employees or send raging e-mails, your demonstrated values, those of abuse and fear, result in a culture of depressed morale and risk-averse attitudes—employees wont innovate or circulate new ideas. If you keep robbing Peter to pay Paul, or regularly run behind on accounts payable, you risk alienating needed business allies and dampen your reputation.
New businesses should consider their values and how living those values would result in the kind of work culture they want to create across all aspects of the business, from the front stage of the product or service, to every last employee, and outward, to external relations.
Established business should periodically take stock of whether their articulated values mesh with their demonstrated values. If there has thus far been no company strategy to support articulated values, one should be developed, including a structure to check in with leadership and get employee feedback to evaluate success or discover areas of weakness.
It can be scary for a business to ask itself difficult questions about whether its values are truly being realized within the company. Leadership may fear exposure, or feel like they have failed when employees report dissatisfaction with the workplace. As difficult as this is, in the long run, if it helps change the culture, bringing demonstrated values in alignment with articulated values, it will have been well worth it. When demonstrated values, actionable day-to-day office relations and operations are in alignment, turnover will be less, productivity will be higher, your business will enjoy a better public profile, and a culture of employee driven innovation will add value to the organization. These are the lofty goals worth living out each day at work.