A lot has been written about company cultures in the past. But now, more than ever, shaping a winning culture is an essential ticket into the competitive advantage game. If you work in an organization, there IS a culture and probably many sub-cultures. You most likely discuss culture dynamics with your peers, your boss and your employees, if you have them.
Just to be sure we are on the same page, let’s first establish a common definition of company culture. Basically, it is the way things actually get done, the rules of the game. If you want to survive and stay safe, you follow these unwritten rules.
So, what is a winning culture, how do you get it and keep it? The answer depends on the overarching cultural desired outcome. For example, a company that wants a winning culture of compliance and risk mitigation may shape their culture in a slightly different way from the company who wants a culture that attracts and retains the best and brightest Millennials. However, the common thread woven through these culture examples is voice. By voice, I mean the flow of important work related information up, down, across in the organization. It is a critical prerequisite to shaping and sustaining a winning culture regardless of the context. Therefore, shaping a culture of voice is the foundation upon which all other cultural strategies should be built.
A Culture of Voice: The Essential Foundation
A foundational culture of voice exists when employees know for certain that their voices have merit. Leaders consistently solicit employees’ views and opinions and act on them or provide explanations when action isn’t feasible. For example, companies with successful safety records have robust safety cultures. They include not only safety policies and procedures but also, clear and distinct management support for a safety culture. Journal of Safety Research (De Joy et al, 2004; O’Toole, 2002) studies show that companies with low safety violations had leaders who treated employees as knowledge sources whose opinions were solicited and acted upon. Studies (Mearns, et al. 2010; Neal & Griffin, 2006; De Joy et al., 2004) also show that Safety Cultures are positively related to safety behavior and negatively related to safety incidents. Soliciting views and acting on employees ideas means that leaders are willing to ask, listen and accept the views of others, not only their own. When leaders consistently demonstrate this practice, it results in a Culture of Voice.
Similarly, cultures of compliance are shown to encourage ethical practices when compared to policy-only compliance programs (Weaver, G., 2014). Cultures of Compliance include strong leadership support demonstrated by practices that include setting ethical examples and listening to employees views and opinions before decisions are made and announced. One study showed (Trevino et al. 1999) that “rules and punishment only” compliance programs are less effective as a deterrent when compared to programs that include a culture of compliance focus. One important cultural component is the leadership practice of ensuring that employees’ voices are heard and solicited and that decisions are made fairly.
Millennials are the third reason to shape a foundational culture of voice. By 2018, it is expected the millennial generation will comprise 50% or more of the U.S. labor force, where, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual quit rate is 25%. Moreover, 45% of companies report higher turnover rates among Millennials and research shows this demographic will stay with their employers for an average of three years (Cabrera, 2015). Millennials are less inclined to stay in a job or with an organization where they are dissatisfied. According to a Millennial study conducted by Smith and Turner (2015), this demographic wants to work in a culture that encourages voice, work-life balance, and flexibility; develops leadership skills; offers mentoring support; and demonstrates core values aligned with their own.
So far, at least three reasons have been reviewed to make the case for a foundational culture of voice: effective risk and compliance programs and millennial talent retention. However, the flip side of culture of voice is a culture of silence.
Cultures of Silence
Cultures of silence exist when employees willfully withhold important work related information. Research shows (Bogosian, 2011) that there are four primary reasons for employee silence:
- Egregious leadership practices
- Perception of unfair practices
- Perception of Futility
- Social silence: going along to get along
Cultures of silence undercut all culture strategies and represent huge risks for organizations. When employees willfully withhold important work related information, we typically don’t find out until it’s too late. For example, we have recently seen data security violations, ignition switch defects, emission control violation, phantom retail bank account creation and more. These events can be traced back to cultures of silence where employees who were aware of the dangers and risks of current business practices remained silent or when they tried to voice their concerns, were ignored or punished. Shaping a winning culture is very possible and like a marathon athlete, every leader, should start the process carefully, slowly, and build momentum over time. Leaders must measure their culture shaping progress and steadily increase intensity and breadth over time. Leaders must put the stake in the ground, begin to shape a foundational culture of voice and build upon it to achieve a truly winning company culture.
Shaping a winning culture is every leader’s business.
Bogosian, R. (2011). Engaging Organizational Voice: A Phenomenological Study of
Employees’ Lived Experiences of Silence in Work Group Settings. Michigan, Ann Arbor: ProQuest
Cabrera, A. (2015). How to target & retain Millennials in the automotive sector with Data-as-a-Service (DaaS). Retrieved from http://www.datamentors.com/blog/how-target-retain-millennials-automotive-sector-data-service-daas
De Joy, et al. (2004). Behavior change versus culture change: Divergent approaches
to managing workplace safety. Safety Science, 43, 105-129.
Mearns, K. et al. (2010). Investments in workforce health: Exploring the implications
for workforce safety climate and commitment. Accident Analysis &
Prevention, 42, 1445-1454.
Smith, C. & Turner, S. (2015). The radical transformation of diversity and inclusion: The Millennial influence. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/radical-transformation-of-diversity-and-inclusion.html
Trevino, L. et al., (1999). Managing ethics and legal compliance: What works and
what hurts. California Management Review, 41(2), 131-151.
Weaver, G. (2014). Encouraging ethics in organizations: A review of some key
research findings. American Criminal Law Review, 293.
Contributing Author: Dr. Charlene Rousseau