Tangiblizing the (seemingly) intangible: Organizational Culture
AAKASH JAISWAL | October 18, 2021
Of late, my LinkedIn feed has seen more instances of posts highlighting the importance of organizational culture. Typically, these posts have a personal story, describing how there was a certain action by the organization or colleagues that touched them and created an experience worth telling the world. These experiences lie on both spectrums of positive and negative. The positive ones mention how these actions perfectly embody the organizational culture of the organization. These organizations are worthy of praise and let’s call them Category A organizations.
Become a contributor
On the other hand, the negative experiences are from hapless employees posting about their agonizing experiences at the hand of their employers. The term ‘toxic work culture’ is invariably a common thread tying these narratives. Organizations of this type are still worthy of mention – to caution their customers and prospective employees against such practices. Let’s call them Category B organizations.
The above two scenarios make one wonder – what led to the creation of companies in categories A and B. No company founder would have ever set out to intentionally build a company with poor workplace environment and organizational culture. Something somewhere went awry. And its not a single watershed moment that defines organizational culture, but a series of instances, seemingly innocuous when viewed in isolation, but catastrophic when they get summed up – the negative repercussions of the total being much higher than the sum of its parts. Obviously, category B companies had grand visions of their organizations being the perfect workplace, but that vision didn’t translate into the performance of activities required for it to get realized.
Let’s take a quick detour here, what is this idea of ‘culture’ that is being laid so much emphasis here. Three months ago, I was speaking to a dear friend of mine (I fondly call him David) who is building his tech-venture. During the conversation, he confessed that something that had been keeping him awake on most nights is the uncertainty on how he should he cascade his vision of culture throughout the organization. He was struggling with the fact that culture in itself seemed abstract and finally asked me two questions: can organizational culture be tangible and how can his organization imbibe the target culture that he had in his mind?
If you are a founder or a people-manager struggling to find answers to similar questions, in order to keep your organization, a category A workplace, then let us try answering these questions. Beginning with the foundational quest– what is culture? Well, the definition of culture couldn’t have been more precise – “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”. Shared attitudes, values, goals, practices would translate to the fact that since they are ‘shared’ – meaning adhered to by a group of people – they are ‘acceptable’ too.
And this is true for culture anywhere – if in an organization, it is acceptable to work on weekends or beyond working hours, it automatically becomes a part of its culture.
Now that we are a little more comfortable with the idea of culture, let us try answering the next question that David was struggling with – can someone get trained in culture?
In order to answer this question, I had asked David to contemplate structuring his culture quest through the following framework:
1) Make your own vision of culture become clearer to you and others: chart-out the set of organization-wide ‘shared activities’ or behaviors that you would want to be ‘acceptable’
2) Who are your ‘Power Users’: Identify employees who are engaging in these acceptable activities
3) Empower your power users by setting an example: Reward and recognize those employees who are engaging in such behaviors
4) Make culture a part of your employee experience journey or the hire-to-retire cycle: Culture isn’t a point-in-time exercise, its continuity is closely aligned to organizational continuity
In my recent call with him, David detailed how is he ironing-out the above:
A) Creation of a preliminary competency framework: After extensive discussion with his co-founder and function heads, he has created a version of his company’s competency framework, which closely aligns to his target organizational culture and contains the competencies (e.g taking initiatives, attention to detail, innovativeness) and the associated behaviors within each of these competencies. Since the firm is only an year old, this framework and the behaviors would undergo evolution as it gains experience and understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Currently, the competency framework forms the guiding light for processes such as hiring (interview questions aligned to probing the presence of competencies in the candidates), and performance management (annual performance rating as a weighted average of the ratings on individual competencies and behaviors).
B) Publicly acknowledging displayed employee behaviors which reflect organizational culture: From calling out these employees in the recent townhall to allocating a reward (e-commerce gift-cards), David has a range of plans to recognize these behaviors and reward the employees to set examples of how the organizational culture ought to be for the entire firm, thus incentivizing these behaviors among other employees too.
C) Planning training on organizational culture: David has plans to work closely with the Learning and Development (LnD) lead of his firm to incorporate cultural training and assimilation processes by design into the employee experience. This includes activities like setting realistic job expectations at the hiring stage itself, to leveraging simulation and role play during training sessions to depict how can employees contextualize the firm’s culture to their day-do-day activities.
Through these measures, David plans to build a thriving and resilient organization that has solid foundational culture. While his initial preparations seem to be going well, as his company grows and enters subsequent levels of maturity, he must also remind himself to revisit these systems periodically so that they are in accordance to the evolving culture.
At a personal level, the definition of culture itself has helped me keep a clear understanding of the same and relate it to different aspects of an organization. And since then, terms like ‘culture-fit’ seem so much clearer to me. Here’s to more Category A companies who have understood the importance of walking-the-talk when it comes to organizational culture and have taken steps to tangiblize the intangible.