A Cultural Problem

One of the challenges faced by companies large and small is that of establishing a functional, healthy corporate culture. There is not one type of corporate culture that is best. Apple, Google, and IBM have drastically different corporate cultures but all three have been highly successful.

Culture Counts

The popular notion of culture tends to revolve around geography and race. Historically some cultures have emphasized values that made them thrive, the emphasis in Japanese culture on family or the Puritan work ethic are positive cultural traits that have led to generations of prosperity and success. Other cultures are dysfunctional and embrace values that lead to failure. The people of the State of Michigan do not embrace higher education as a path to success and it has led to economic stagnation. This is an example of a dysfunctional culture.

Correcting Corporate Culture

Management plays a key role in determining the corporate culture at an organization. It starts the moment a potential employee walks in the door and continues until they retire, quit, or are fired. Managers can create an environment that emphasizes trust and responsibility or mistrust and fear. I’ve worked with organizations that do both and I can attest to the value of the former and the problems with the latter approach.

There are a few important keys to creating a healthy culture:

  • Hire good people, fire bad ones
  • Trust employees to do their jobs well
  • Give employees the resources they need
  • Punish incompetence, not failure
  • Reward employees when they are successful
  • Reward learning and professional growth

The theme here should be apparent, hire good people, give them something to do, and get out of the way. Human beings will generally live up or down to expectations. Educators have recognized this for years and good ones set high expectations for students to live up to. Employers have it even easier than educators since they can screen their employees before hiring them and fire them if they don’t work out. Setting high, but realistic, expectations for behavior, professional growth, productivity gives employees a level achievement that they can strive for and feel good about when they attain. Fostering an atmosphere of friendly completion and instilling these values in employees creates a functional, healthy corporate culture.

Some companies have already done a good job of establishing a healthy corporate culture and they area reaping the dividends. For those that are suffering from a dysfunctional culture they face a tough challenge in recognizing the problem and correcting it. A combination of carrot and stick are called for in this situation.

  1. Tell employees clearly what the problem is and what you want to see change
  2. Ask for and listen to employees’ input on how and in what ways you can improve the corporate culture
  3. Reprimand, demote, or fire those that don’t improve and change
  4. Recognize, praise, and reward those that do improve and change
  5. Screen new hires and set up a program to indoctrinate them with the positive values you emphasize

Changing a deeply ingrained dysfunctional culture can be a long and difficult battle. It will take time and dedication but it will get easier as you go. Change begets change and positive changes toward a healthy, functional culture will reinforce themselves over time. Employees that value education and productivity will continue to improve over time.

Kevin Hall
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