Culture. It’s one of those buzzwords that gets thrown around regularly at organizations of all sizes. Most leaders acknowledge that a strong culture can mean the difference between outstanding and mediocre results, yet plenty of organizations struggle when it comes to building a culture that has staying-power.

What do companies with strong cultures do differently? What’s the secret to long-term cultural success? Here are five truths that can help any organization get very clear about efforts to build and sustain culture:

  1. Culture is a discipline, not an initiative.  The challenge for many organizations is they relate to culture as more of a “thing” to accomplish instead of a way-of-life. Culture isn’t a single program or an initiative – it doesn’t have start and completion dates. Culture is happening all the time, whether anyone is paying attention or not. Certainly, you can put a robust effort into culture, especially if the organization is undergoing a major change, but the work must never stop. As soon as it becomes a lesser priority, culture has the potential to slide out of control. Successful organizations approach culture as an ongoing discipline that requires dedication and commitment year-round.
  2. Culture is not morale. This may seem obvious, but some organizations collapse culture with morale. When this happens, efforts to build “culture” can end up looking like high school pep rallies with popcorn machines, meaningless contests, and lunchtime barbecues. Sure these perks contribute to morale, but they are not culture. Culture is a shared set of beliefs that drive behavior. Morale is the collective emotions, attitudes, and overall satisfaction of employees. Generally when culture is prioritized in an organization, morale is more likely to be strong because employees have a clear sense of purpose and an understanding of how they contribute to delivery of the customer promise.
  3. Culture starts by addressing beliefs, not behaviors. Efforts toward building culture often focus on employee behaviors. There may be specific processes that employees need to follow, and cultural efforts sometimes mistakenly jump right to the tactical details or behaviors. While those details are important, they won’t sustain a long term shift in behavior if the work hasn’t been done to tie them to beliefs. If you want to truly change culture, start with a focus on beliefs that connect directly to the brand promise. As those beliefs become firmly grounded, then it’s possible to introduce specific behaviors that have an intuitive connection to core beliefs. Employees will be more willing to take on a change in behavior when those connections have been made very clear for them.
  4. Culture starts at the top.  Employees look to leaders to walk their walk, which means they must have a very visible role in ongoing cultural efforts. Every strategy and objective of the organization should be viewed through the lens of how it will impact culture. When a change may threaten to disrupt culture, leaders can get out in front and address issues head-on. This is the key to maintaining steady results and a strong culture, even in the face of change.
  5. Culture can be measured. It may seem challenging to measure culture when it’s a somewhat intangible thing. Employee engagement surveys and focus groups offer a couple of ways to identify strengths and opportunities. By asking the right questions, you can find out if employees understand the promise of your brand and if they share the beliefs that will drive behaviors, which in turn can deliver results. The bigger opportunity in measurement comes from identifying the natural parallels between cultural beliefs and business results. For example, a sales metric could be tied to a specific behavior that’s part of a service model. If that metric is struggling, then you can look at the corresponding behavior and backtrack to the beliefs that are at its core. This can provide the first clue as to where culture needs nourishment and the beliefs that need more reinforcement and energy.

By acknowledging these truths, organizations can put themselves on the path toward building strong and vibrant cultures that have long-term staying power while supporting successful delivery of the customer promise.

About Alice Wright

As Director of Content Strategy, Alice directs projects while also designing program strategy and instructional content. She has more than 22 years of experience managing integrated strategic marketing, communication and training programs for globally recognized brands. Some of her current and past clients include Nike, Sunglass Hut, Safeway, Banfield Pet Hospital, Office Depot, Unilever, LensCrafters, EMC, Intel, Microsoft, Dell, adidas, Joann Stores and others. Alice earned her bachelor’s degree from the School of Journalism and Communication at University of Oregon. She lives with her husband and teenage son in Portland, Oregon where she loves exploring the outdoors and being a soccer/band mom.