Businesses love to preach about the importance of company culture, but many companies struggle with a disconnect between what they say and the reality of their own company culture.
A joint study between the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and Columbia Business School surveyed over 1800 CEOs and CFOs worldwide focusing on over 1400 from the United States and Canada. While more than 90 percent of respondents said that company culture was very important, just 15 percent said their own company culture “was exactly where it needed to be.”
So how exactly can you distinguish between an authentic and a fake when it comes to company culture? What are the signs that your own business culture is in trouble, and how can leaders become genuine about company culture and make it stick with their teams? Read on to learn what you need to know about recognizing and combating a superficial company culture.
“Company culture is often perceived as a set of values, the type of thing that is painted on the walls of the lobby in an office building,” says Catherine Spence, COO and co-founder of business culture management and analytics firm Pomello. However Spence points out that the true measure of culture is the behaviors that underpin those values. “If employees are not living those values through their day-to-day behavior then there is a high probability that those values are just lip service, and that there is, in fact, some other set of cultural norms operating within your organization.”
According to S.Chris Edmonds, executive consultant and author of Amazon bestseller, The Culture Engine, your company culture may be only skin-deep if the behavior of leaders and employees is at odds with the stated company values.
“A superficial culture is deeply inconsistent,” he says. “One of your company’s values might state ‘people are our most important asset,’ yet leaders dismiss, discount, and demean team members every day.”
Edmonds also says not linking consequences to unacceptable actions consistently suggests a weak company culture.
“A stated value might be “integrity,” yet people withhold information, don’t deliver what they promise, and poach customers from their peers – with no consequences to their actions.”
Fight inconsistency by enforcing consequences for behaviors that don’t reflect the core values underpinning your company culture. This requires coaching leaders and other team members on their behaviors, and disciplining those who continue to behave in ways that don’t align with your culture.
If you see more than five core values listed in your annual report, it’s a sign that your company culture could become superficial – or that it already is.
“As the number of core values increases, the likelihood that a company is trying to be all things to all people increases,” says Spence. “Many companies fall into the trap of listing every value that sounds desirable, not realizing that they are diluting the message they are sending to employees about what is most important, and therefore diluting their culture.”
Fewer core values makes it easier for your team to identify and embrace behavior based on what your company deems important, creating an authentic company culture. Review your core values with an eye to whittling down the list to the top three or four that most embody your company’s true philosophy.
If your team has trouble making decisions without you, this could point to a superficial company culture.
When team members know the behavior that’s expected of them as employees of your organization, they’ll draw on their understood core values and company culture to guide their decision, leading to an outcome that best reflects the company.
“When employees are able to make decisions independently, it indicates that leadership has explained the strategic priorities of the team/company, and that employees understand how their core behaviors influence achieving those priorities,” explains Spence.
Are there people in your organization whose questionable behavior gets overlooked and rewarded even if it doesn’t align with your core values? This could be a sign of a shallow company culture because you’re accepting behavior that doesn’t back up what you say your business stands for.
Accountability expert, keynote speaker, and author Linda Galindo says this behavior may show up in the “rock stars” of your company.
“[You may see it] in the form of top performers who are not held to the same requirements as everyone else on the team,” she says. And often this behavior is excused because of the results achieved.
Galindo says that these excuses may include statements like “He brings in more revenue so he can turn in his reports incomplete or late,” or “She does not have to attend meetings, she exceeds expectations and her team loves her.”
If this sounds like your organization, it’s time to revisit the rules with your managers and top performers to ensure their behavior aligns with company core values and culture.
Fuzzy, incomplete, or wildly differing answers from your staff when asked about your company’s values and behavior is another sign your company culture isn’t getting soaked up the way it should.
“If you asked 15 to 20 people from across the organization what the most valued and rewarded behavior is, would you get two to three consistent answers? Or would you get 15-20 answers?” asks Spence. “If you get two to three consistent answers, that indicates that a consistent set of core values and priorities has been communicated and internalized across the organization.”
If you get more than a handful of answers, Spence says you could have a fragmented culture. This may result from inconsistency in communicating company values, or from having too many company values for team members to really embrace. So take it as another sign that it’s time to reduce the number of your company values and revisit or revamp company communication methods.
There’s no sugar-coating it. Combatting a superficial company culture takes work, and Galindo says it starts with the leaders of an organization.
“Leadership has to communicate, demonstrate, and give permission to [the] workforce to hold them accountable to living the values of the culture they expect,” she says.
So learn to identify the signs of a superficial company culture. Then you can work to strengthen your own.