Building a Strong Culture? The 3 Most Important Questions to Ask

The idea that “strong culture drives performance” is not only intuitively true but is widely validated by numerous research studies on the subject (like How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation  done by Harvard Business School and How Corporate Culture Affects the Bottom Line by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business). However, that leaves the question: “if culture drives performance, how do you drive (or build) a strong culture?” Many things affect culture but I believe that ultimately, values are the “DNA” of your culture. However, making values known, relevant and actionable at the moment a behavior is enacted or a decision is made seems to be elusive for many organizational leaders.

The proliferation of engagement activities and software in recent years is a testament to the importance of communication, feedback and social bonding in the workplace and is a step in the right direction. Many elements of Gallup’s Q12 survey measure critical engagement metrics and therefore is a valuable tool in measuring, at the point in time the survey is taken, the health of the organization. However, I believe there is more to be done on several levels. Below are three questions to ask yourself as you explore what your next steps should be in strengthening your culture.

#1. What is the common object or goal of improving employee engagement?

If it is simply to foster communication leading to trust then that is a worthy goal. But what about accomplishing that goal in the context of an organization’s values? Said differently, shouldn’t engagement be the means to a common end, namely, alignment to the values of the organization to create a strong culture? I don’t in any way intend to diminish the importance of engagement; I simply believe that it is a critical element in the quest to create an aligned understanding of what an organization claims to be its core values. Again, this is based upon the belief that values are the DNA of culture, and the alignment of that DNA is what determines the strength of your culture.

#2. How memorable are your company values?

As valuable as surveys, kudos, gamification, etc. are in creating an engaged workforce, I believe that they lack the higher order objective we have as leaders to align our organizations to the specific values which we’ve painstakingly developed. Often times, core values, like codes of conduct, are diligently created only to find themselves collecting dust on shelves or resting in the “about us” section of our company’s website.

Ideally, employees would not only know an organization’s values by name, but they would know the meaning of these values. The desire to make values memorable (e.g. single words or short phrases) makes them less precise. Without continuous reinforcement and repetition, stated values become relics without relevance. Furthermore, even if we assume that every employee actually knows an organization’s values as well as the precise meaning of each value, what good is that if that information is not top of mind at the point a behavior or decision is made?

By analogy, think of the tremendous amount of time and money expended driving our marketing message to our customers. Would we be satisfied if customers just knew the name of our brand? Wouldn’t we want them to also know its differentiating attributes as well? We certainly want them to have our brand name and features/benefits top-of-mind at the point they make a decision to buy. In marketing, terms like “unaided awareness” and “total impressions” are used to measure the progress potential customers are making towards changing their buying behavior towards purchasing our products. I believe this is the same way we should think of aligning employees to our values and the accompanying behaviors that follow.

#3. Do you market your values internally to build a Strong Culture?

At XSInc, we’ve found that the “internal marketing” of our values is both a function of engagement AND alignment to values. We have found over the past nine years that this approach is superior to episodic consulting events and surveys alone. We named the system we developed “Novareté” and it has become a core component of our intranet. Novareté has all of the engagement features generally available today in the market such as kudos, social postings, surveys, gamification, etc. Additionally, and importantly, we post weekly dilemmas. These dilemmas are short scenarios that test the boundaries of acceptable behavior that is associated with our values. In a way, these dilemmas are like “practice swings” for employees. Because each dilemma is situational, they are superior to ipsative surveys. Furthermore, employees remain anonymous and so their selected answers and forum debates reflect the true thinking of your organization. Once answers are selected, a benchmark graphic shows how your answer selection compares to that of others. We believe this is an excellent way to define, test and align values. The active engagement involved in debating a nuanced interpretation of a dilemma results in true learning.

Finally, the nature of an engagement system that also measures dilemma responses and the underlying values interpretation provides a 24/7 means of measuring progress and taking action to better address shortfalls and gaps in employee understanding. We believe that this approach changes the game by using modern engagement media with the objective of improving alignment to corporate values

Once this process is established, correlating alignment to performance against KPIs becomes your answer to and validation of the question, “How do I drive (build) a strong culture?”