People & Human Resources

How does your culture work?

Michel Hogan /

While culture may or may not eat strategy for breakfast, depending on which side of the quote attributed to Peter Drucker you fall, it’s futile to resist the influence it has on groups of people.

Culture also acts as connective tissue for the brand result. Starting with the intention captured by the identity (purpose and values), culture threads through the promises the brand makes to the experience the organisation delivers — keeping or breaking those promises and resulting in the brand.

I’ve previously described culture as the visible face of the brand, and an interview with Dan Coyle, the author of The Culture Code, provides another way to view that connection:

“It’s not a language of words but a language of behaviors [sic] that create connections and safety, that create openness and exchanges of information, and that create direction.”

Like ticker-tape after a parade, empty word wrappers litter the cultures of organisations and time is wasted twiddling with language; but it’s not the language that is the problem. The words will only ever be meaningful when behaviour and actions back them.

However, the actions tied to culture too often reflect that parade: they are focused on a veneer of fun and engagement but lack the substance necessary to feed meaningful connections.

To learn more about making what you care about concrete and tangible click here.

When people are told one thing and shown something different, they respond to what they experience, not what they hear. This is true whether those people are employees or customers, partners or suppliers, board members or volunteers.

So how do you get to a place where the parade weathers scrutiny from any quarter? Coyle offers the following idea:

“There is shallow fun, which is foosball tables, and then there’s deep fun, which is where the people in the company take ownership over what is happening…”

‘Deep fun’ and the ownership required to achieve it is where culture and the brand fully align. I’ve talked at length about the deep work an organisation must do to reach the brand result they want; taking ownership of how you will be and do is also part of that process.

Robust cultures share the opportunity for that ownership, top-to-bottom and side-to-side. Similar to the everyday work needed to produce the brand result, fostering a strong culture isn’t the role of any one area or group of people. This is not just the work of the people and culture or HR areas or the CEO: it is a product of how the whole connects, relates and comes together.

So take Coyle’s suggestion of ‘deep fun’ to heart and turn a page on the way you approach people and culture. If you currently focus on ‘who we are’ make a shift to ‘how we do’. I often ask organisations what their culture is. I think an altogether better question is “how does your culture work?”

Coyle’s interview is a worthwhile read, both pragmatic and inspiring with the examples of Navy Seals, Pixar and people who man missile silos, acting as a lens through which you can consider your own organisation’s culture.

See you next week.

NOW READ: “People are greater than perks”: Why founders need to make sure their culture evolves as their startup does

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