Few would argue that a healthy company culture is critical to keeping people engaged and able to deliver their best in their workplace. As Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., Former CEO of IBM, once said: “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.” The consequences of disengagement are also very well documented, for example in this econjournals.com paper from 2017.
But it’s difficult to find a succinct definition of a ‘healthy culture’. Some say it’s about valuing each employee regardless of rank or role, others say it’s about everyone being on the same page when it comes to strategy. Still others talk about consistently lived values, or about everyone benefitting from being part of the organisation. And so, in thinking about interventions that will improve the company’s culture, those charged with the job of engagement are often tempted to focus on the niceties that are easy to tick off on ‘best places to work’ surveys – the sports and social clubs, the reward programmes that offer discounts, the nap pods…
“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”
Unfortunately, all the naps in the world won’t cure an unhealthy culture. As much as these activities can add value, they have to be an extension of a culture that is already healthy to do so. If not, they run the risk of being perceived as shiny, meaningless distractions from the real issues. Which brings us back to the problem of a succinct definition.
I propose that a healthy culture is an authentic one. And to ensure that your culture is authentic to your value statements, your employee value propositions, your brand and market positioning, it’s sometimes necessary to forego being ‘nice’ in the name of genuinely rooting out the real issues.
Rooting out the real issues can mean making some unpopular decisions. If your EVP promises to value all employees equally, best you make sure not even the CEO has a specially allocated parking space. But more importantly, it often means ensuring there are consequences for actions that are incongruent with the culture you want to foster, even for superstar performers or long-term leaders.
Finding the root causes of an unhealthy culture can be challenging. But it’s worth looking for them. Because if left unchecked, your employee engagement investments can’t add the value they’re supposed to add.