Organizational Culture Can Help You Raise Your Performance Bar


WGNinHR is pleased to feature Dr. Bouvier Williams as our Guest Author.

Understanding your organization’s culture can be instrumental in helping to improve your level of performance and provide you with a real competitive advantage.

C-suite leader, consultants, and change agents often cite an organization’s culture as one of the main factors that contribute to its long term success. Knowing the drivers behind an effective culture and how to sustain them enables market dominant companies to reap an array of benefits that include index beating financial performance, top talent attraction, high employee morale, and customer retention. Great cultures give organizations a competitive advantage, but are not limited to institutions. Employees can also reap a host of beneficial outcomes, if they know how to identify an organization’s culture and translate it into personal objectives they can attain.

Organizational Culture: What Is It and Why Should You Care About It?

Due to the subjective nature of culture, it can be a maddening effort to precisely articulate it or create one definition that works for everyone. Still, one might think about organizational culture as a strong cocktail which has a unique mixture of an institution’s values, beliefs, symbols, history, language, communications, and ongoing practices that can influence peoples’ behavior (sometimes without them realizing they are being influenced) and mindset. And to further muddy the waters, an organization can have a set of sub-cultures based on differences in geographic location, job/functional requirements, and departmental goals (Schein, 1990). However, it’s fair to say that organizational culture is very real and can be perceived by others.

Cultural attributes may vary by business or industry, but we often glean similar elements across high performing organizations. The best organizations to work for seem to emphasize respect, quality and sustainability, trust, employee engagement, adaptation, entrepreneurship, collaboration, inclusiveness, goal achievement, and customer focus. The extent to which individuals engage in behaviors that reflect the values/norms can make the difference in how they achieve expected results. Adopting the rules of engagement on the playground will get you invited back to play with the other kids.

Similarly, employees who are cognizant of their workplace culture tend to harmonize their individual goals with the objectives and needs of their managers, fellow employees and customers. Tony Hernandez, executive vice president of human resources at Regions Financial Corporation said, “The understanding of your organization's culture is going to be critical to your future success. How you communicate with key stakeholders, how you navigate through the office politics, and how you get things done are all going to be influenced by the culture. The approach that worked at your last company may not work at your new company. How quickly you learn the new culture and understand how to work within it will determine how quickly others perceive you as an effective contributor and respected team member.”

Culture and employee performance exist in an almost symbiotic relationship. Organizations want to recruit the best talent in order to attain or keep market supremacy and help them realize their objectives. At the same time, employees need an environment they find supportive in helping them reach their individual goals. It’s a very well balanced echo-system that pretty much depends on organizational culture to influence individual performance.

Clearly you need to pay attention to the organization’s culture, but how can you tell what matters most to those in your specific environment?

Read the Culture Sign-Posts

Culture is invisible to the five senses, but research suggests that it can fall within a wide range of recognizable types and behaviors. These behaviors are observable through the everyday practices of senior executives, managers, team leaders, peers, and subordinates as they participate in meetings, send emails, create new products, and resolve customer issues. You simply have to pay attention to what others are doing around you to identify the type of culture that dominates your organization.

Peter Phelan, founder and chief executive officer of ValuesCulture, an organizational culture consultancy, states that “Gaining true intimacy with a culture can take a long time and focused effort but there are some litmus tests that can certainly help us sketch an outline. The leader is always a great place to start. If they're visibly invested in positive connections with their team and setting a tone, with actions as opposed to just words, where people are valued you might be off to a great start.” Phelan also said. “Another thing to look for is congruence between what the company says about its culture on, say, its careers page, and what others say the company on social media. Signs of openness are also quite revealing. If an organization has been around for a long time, but has never conducted an employee engagement survey - that might be a revealing sign that they're not invested in improving the employee experience.’

Looking at the chart below, ask yourself which of the culture types and associated behaviors below best reflects your current organizational culture or sub-culture?

Indicators of Culture

The indicators that reveal what really matters to your company, agency, foundation, or academic institution frequently come to the surface in staff meetings, performance feedback conversations, and project presentations. The scattered evidence of your specific workplace culture presents itself in abundance once you begin to look for and read the signs.

Using Culture as a Competitive Performance Advantage

They say everything a company does can be duplicated at the end of the day which is why long term market dominance is so difficult. However, company culture remains consistently hard to replicate. That’s probably why it remains a reliable differentiator between organizations. Once you choose to plug into your strong organizational culture (presuming you wish to do so), you can leverage it as a means of differentiating your professional brand and build some sustainable relationships with customers, vendors, leaders and colleagues.

  • Educate Yourself. There is more information available to you to gain insight into the potential performance benefits on culture. Phelan offers a variety of practical tools to his clients to help them come up to speed on organizational culture. He said, “There's a very encouraging uptick in great content on culture today. Deloitte's human capital trends report has excellent data and perspectives on culture. And the transparency provided by sites like Glassdoor give people unprecedented insights into the culture of organizations. In terms of competitive advantage and overall happiness - making sure that you find a culture that's right for you is the key. And thanks to the culture conversation now being fueled by tremendous sophistication, transparency, and data than ever before - finding that fit may be more attainable than ever.”

  • Make Like An Archeologist and Dig. Culture is often recorded in a Society’s sacred texts and documents. Organizations are also quite fond of capturing their values in written form. Hernandez advises many employees to “Memorize your new company's mission statement and list of core values. As a quick check, you can always ask yourself if what you are doing fits in with the company's mission and values. Many companies use a set of core competencies that they use to assess their associates as part of the performance management process. These competencies will give you a good indicator of what behaviors are important to your new company. If your company uses a regular associate engagement process or survey, study the questions to understand what the company hopes to improve upon.”

Phelan echoes the sentiment. “Once you've got a handle on the culture it really can be a wonderful cheat sheet for organizing and prioritizing your work. For example, if you're in a fast-moving start-up in a dynamic industry and they pride themselves on innovation, chances are that perfection isn't an expectation. So, a perfectionist type may need to see if they can get used to getting a solid 1st draft turned around more quickly than they're used to, getting feedback, and turning around Version 2.0 immediately.”

  • Consult the Tribal Elders. You can benefit from using the institutional/historical knowledge of friends and associates who’ve clocked some significant time in your organization. Hernandez suggested that you “Find a respected person within the organization that has been there for a lengthy period of time. More often than not, they have been there for a long time because they like it there, and they have learned to be successful. If you show interest in the company and ask them what they have learned, you would be surprised at how much people are willing to share their knowledge to help you.”

  • Cultures Are Dynamic. You Should Be Too. Change as they say is a constant. Organizations respond to changes in consumer tastes, global markets, and to their competitors. Human beings change physically and mentally over the course of time in order to function successfully in their environment. Organizational cultures evolve as leaders and employees exit and new individuals with new ideas and technologies replace them. It they don’t continue to grow and adapt, they wither away. Constantly watch for signs of a new direction or new behaviors that signal things might be different in the future. Prepare in advance to acquire new knowledge and skills.

Phelan reminds people to “Boost their flexibility and nimbleness by consciously getting out of their comfort zones to thrive in the new setting for a spell. It's a good thing to know how to engage with folk who are different and think differently from you and this could be a good training ground for future opportunities.”

Culture & Performance Are Linked To Your Brand

Getting in sync with your organization’s culture can pay off by helping you up your performance game and enabling you to set yourself a part from the pack. Doing it right will assist you in building strong relationships with customers, suppliers, and other critical constituents in your company. Since your values and behaviors are aligned with what matters to the organization, you can make better decisions and get the systemic results that will help others engage with your brand. Ultimately you become the kind of talent that your organization desperately wants to retain.

Dr. Bouvier Williams is an expert and speaker in Talent Management, Leadership Development, and Personal Branding. He has worked for Global Fortune 1000 organizations in the Life Sciences & Materials, Media & Entertainment, Financial Services, and Professional Services industries.

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