“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.  I love this phrase – it sums up what I’ve seen in companies attempting change efforts (like an Agile Transformation).  In my experience, if you don’t fix your lousy organizational culture, you’re not going to achieve the improvements you’re targeting.  But what does a good organizational culture look like?  Here are some of my favorite signs/markers.

“We vs They/Us vs Them”

When something happens either good or bad, how do people talk about it?  Do they say “We are changing to help us stay competitive in the market”, or is it “They are changing everything again to help us stay competitive…”.  It’s a small but significant difference in wording.  In the first statement those people are part of the organization and there is some buy-in to what is going on.  The second statement sounds more like “look what they’re doing to us again”.

This subtle difference has significant (negative) implications to how engaged people feel with what is going on.  And in my experience engagement is a strong indicator of organizational success.

“Ask the CEO anything”

Can you contact anyone in your organization’s hierarchy and get a reply?   In the better orgs I’ve seen you can e-mail up to the CEO (no matter what size of the company) and even if it takes a few days/weeks they will answer you.  Contrast that to companies that behave in a more hierarchical manner.  You try to contact leadership and suddenly you get a call from the boss asking why you did that.  Or worse, you get no answer at all.

When companies react this way people on the ground start to feel like they’re not heard, and then they stop sharing. This is how leaders get disconnected from what is going on, and when dysfunction really grows.

“What is blocking you and how can I help?”

Speaking of listening, plugged-in leadership is critical to a healthy organization. In better orgs leaders guide by providing vision and then give people whatever they need to achieve it. This also implies leaders remove barriers – meaning when people tell them they have a problem, they quickly clear whatever it is out of the way.  Counter that with the less successful orgs I’ve seen.  Leaders micromanage everything and often fail to explain why work is important. If they even try to find out what is slowing people down, they rarely take action (aka “we’ve always done it this way”).

It’s critical to learn about (and remove) barriers preventing people from getting their jobs done.  This helps to empower employees, which is a key to achieving the “high performance” we so often talk about.

“Can you provide me some feedback?”

We always talk about improving accountability in organizations, and a great way to do that is to create feedback loops.   In the good orgs I’ve seen this means feedback flows up as well as down.  Employees get to provide feedback on their boss and it has an effect on that manager’s evaluation.  In the worse (and more traditional) orgs I’ve seen, the only feedback and accountability is a manager evaluating their subordinates for work they’ve assigned.  Sometimes this works, but what happens if the manager is the reason the reason employees are failing to get work done?

It isn’t easy to setup a system that allows feedback to flow effectively in this way (don’t even get me started on “360 reviews”).  But if you get it right, it creates a dialog between employees and managers that allows them to hold each other accountable and continuously improve.

“Lets have a follow up meeting”

Meetings are expensive.  They cost you precious time, often from your most valuable people.  The more successful organizations I’ve seen make it a point to have more effective meetings – meaning they focus on reaching a stated goal and they facilitate the meeting to reach that goal quickly.  In the less successful organizations I’ll find that employees calendars’ filled with meetings without clear goals.  Everyone wanders from meeting to meeting all day long, but there is rarely much value generated.

Improving meeting culture has a multiplier effect, as you unlock more and more of the most precious resource: time.  You fix one meeting and then another and before you know it you’ve dramatically increased the time available to get the actual work done.

“Who’s fault is it?”

What happens when mistakes are made at your company?  Most organizations I’ve seen try to figure out what happened.  In the better orgs they look at how the system itself failed, and they make adjustments to it.  Example:  Someone makes a mistake that costs the company money, but the mistake that was made was in an effort to create more customer value.  Instead of blaming the person leaders ask “what adjustments have to happen so a mistake like this cannot be made again”.  Contrast that to less successful orgs.  They try to find out who screwed up and then they blame/punish the person or people involved.

Avoiding personal blame and instead focusing on fixing the system makes it “safer” for people to try new things.  This is critical to creating an organization that experiments and learns, which is critical to innovation.

“Everything is great/Lets Talk About the ‘Wins'”

Companies need to balance talking about both the good things, and the bad things that are happening.  In the better orgs I’ve been a part of there is open discussion about organizational issues among employees and leadership.  Constant discussion takes place to figure out how to reduce or solve those issues so you can improve as a company.  Less successful orgs cover up and/or don’t talk about their issues.  My favorite example is “Employee All Hands” calls where the only things that are discussed are the “wins” time after time.

Acknowledging and discussing issues openly has two key benefits:  You have more minds providing feedback and ideas on how to resolve them, and you increase employee engagement as they own the organizational problems as much as leadership.

There are many more I could mention, but these are some of my favorites.  How about you?  How many of these do you see in your organizations?  What cultural behaviors have you seen in better/worse organizations?

Signs of Good Organizational Culture

Also published on Medium.

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