‘Culture’ is an essential word for businesses


Do words matter? Last month the topic of this column was about labels and how they affect our perception. Certain words evoke reactions and preconceived notions, even if it is not a label pinned to a person or group.

I recently encountered a strong reaction when I explained I was starting a “social media” blog about a project. A partner in the project got pretty vocal about how that would be of no value to what we are trying to do. In fact, he exclaimed that social media is the greatest waste of time that has ever come along.

Another word that might set him off is “culture” as a business term. Furthermore, spending time to manage it would probably be viewed as the second most significant time waster.

Business culture is certainly a topic people are talking about. It seems the word “culture” was the No. 1 word used in business discussions in 2014.

My experience is that some words and ideas, much like clothes, become a fad very quickly and then die out almost as quickly. A few have some staying power and begin to impact our environment. One of those words is “sustainability.” Too often, society is focused on short-term actions, impacts, rewards, acquisitions and relationships. Maybe thinking about sustainability will impact our perspective and have us more attuned to the long-term impact of our actions.

Long-term thinking is often a strategy that separates the winners from the losers. This is not to say you shouldn’t take advantage of short-term opportunities, but we also might evaluate them in regard to any long-term plans — assuming you have them. Now what does all this have to do with culture?

What is culture?

There are a number definitions of culture, such as this one in Webster’s Dictionary: a collective way of thinking, behaving or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business). Please note culture has to be a similarity of practice by a group.

The critical aspect of culture is the emulation of behavior, styles or methodologies. Since this takes time to happen and become “ingrained,” it forces the development of culture to be a sustained process. So being the “word of the year” is only the beginning. The real key is, how does culture evolve? Is it a passive process or can it be a focused process? Is it really important or a “don’t waste my time” topic?

Culture is important!

Being a long-term human resources practitioner, it won’t surprise anyone when I say I believe it can be one of the most important aspects of operating an organization. It permeates nearly every decision made in an organization and actions performed at all levels of the organization. It involves perceived expectations and beliefs.

A business’s culture is not the result of written statements in a handbook or even in a strategic plan. It comes from observation of what happens in the real world and what reactions come from those with power and its influence on those who take some action or even when they don’t take action.

The critical aspect is the emulation of behavior that is perceived as doing the right thing and expecting the desired outcome, which may even be avoidance of a bad outcome. It can be as simple as grounding teenagers (an outcome) by mothers (the person of power) when they don’t come home on time (the action). They have now probably learned a new behavior and the culture is changing.

When you think about this process in an organization, you may realize it is one of the critical elements of leadership. Will you take the time and effort to utilize this important tool? If the answer is yes, the next step is to determine how or if you can change things using culture as a tool.

How do you change culture?

The first step is the same as in any problem-solving situation: Define the situation.

Second step: Determine the solution you are looking for. It is essential that you determine the true picture, not the one someone wrote out because it sounded good or was politically correct.

Doing this is a bit more difficult than it might appear. The more viable data you can collect, the closer you will come to a useful starting place. It will improve chances of a good outcome that will be aligned with the desired solution. It will also be very beneficial for convincing others that the time and effort spent on culture modification is worthwhile. It will be a strong element in the acceptance of the behavior change and the subsequent emulation by others — which of course is the essence of culture. The viable data from before the process starts has to be compared with the end results.

Essential mental gymnastics

If you try to change an organization’s culture by focusing on the desired culture, you will fall into the trap that my skeptical associate is waiting to spring. What you need to do first is focus on a desired outcome, for instance putting in place a strategic sustainability plan of cost-effective greening of the organization. Then establish a plan to make it happen using some revised behaviors that will facilitate better outcomes than existing behaviors.

This can be very difficult, but your step two data analysis of the negative and positive aspects of your environment should help identify the needed process changes. However, people working toward the desired outcomes will focus on the outcome, not the cultural shift you are putting in place. Step four is to do it again and let more people emulate the process and the behaviors.

Culture changes one event at a time, which can be managed and more effective than passage culture development.

Ardon L. Schambers is principal at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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