Starting the Conversation About Culture

conversationMost organizations don't talk about their culture too much. We're too busy doing the work, and the culture sits in the background mostly. It's how we do things here, but that doesn't mean we need to talk about it. It is what it is. At some point, however, we might start to realize that maybe we NEED to talk more about the culture. Maybe the culture we have now isn't a good match for the company's current stage of growth. Maybe the employe retention issue we've been experiencing isn't just about that one program or that one manager. Maybe we need to intentionally shift our culture to make us more effective.

So how do you start that conversation? You might be tempted to convene a meeting of people that matter under the agenda heading of "Improving our Culture." That effort is doomed. Some will resist the conversation because they LIKE the culture that you have now (and/or they were instrumental in creating it), so they will move the conversation away from culture and towards solving the individual symptoms. And then among the people who do see the need to make it better, you'll  have some conflict about what a "better" culture looks like. Even if you come in to the meeting with a general consensus that the culture could be improved, you will not likely leave the meeting with a concrete understanding of how to actually improve it.

The culture conversation needs to start with clarifying the culture that exists now. 

Before you talk about whether it should be improved, or how it should be improved, you need a clear understanding of what it is. And that means going beyond the word-smithed values statement and certainly beyond your stock answer to "tell me about the culture here" that you get from employee candidates during their interview. You need a frank and honest conversation about what is truly valued in this organization, and why.

If you push yourself for real clarity in that conversation, then you'll be in a position to talk about what might need to be improved. There will still be conflict in that conversation, but you'll be able to pull out the conflict that is really meaningful--if we improved our culture in X way, will that help us get better performance and deliver on our strategy? That's the kind of conflict you really need to have. Before the clarity, the conflict you would have would be subjective, high-level, and not productive.

The assessment that I have developed for organizations starts by having the whole staff evaluate the culture in four separate areas that don't necessarily give you the answer of how your culture SHOULD be, but it helps you focus your conversation on what the culture is. The four areas give you some objective guide posts that focus the conversation away from the subjective notions of "I like the culture here" or "we need a more cohesive culture" and towards making that connection between what is valued and what drives success.

Let's Talk About Workplace Culture
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