What Is Corporate Culture?
Corporate culture is a complex concept defined by the intersection of employees’ beliefs and behaviors, which in turn define how organizational members interact within the work environment. While corporate culture is cumulative and dynamic, consisting of the collective behaviors and personalities of all individuals, it is possible – and advised – for leadership to monitor and, ultimately, control culture.
Defining Your Organization’s Culture
First, recognize that no one individual can drive corporate culture singlehandedly. In fact, every team member has an impact – however minute – on overall culture.
Traditionally, organizations have relied solely upon leadership to drive the behaviors that seem to drive business. Leadership is also typically the first scapegoat when an organization has an inconsistent or negatively perceived culture. However, it’s important to understand that the traits and behaviors that a CEO is likely to possess may not be positive traits for all positions within an organization. Consider Steve Jobs, for example. Steve’s path to success was paved by innovation coupled with his notoriously direct and critical management style (among other attributes). While these traits ensured Steve’s success as a CEO, his behaviors would not be as well received if he had been a remote Support Specialist, for example – a position which requires steadfast patience and friendliness.
Corporate culture is a puzzle, where each employee possesses traits and behaviors that are desirable for their specific position, as well as characteristics that may limit their success. Understanding where each position fits into the overall corporate strategy is only the first step; monitoring and coaching individual employees to encourage behaviors that match the ideal profile for their specific role – while also minimizing counter-productive behaviors – is the key to optimizing enterprise-wide culture. It’s a two-step, one-size-does-NOT-fit-all approach to performance management: you must first define your own culture to determine which traits are desirable for each individual position before you can coach employees to meet your expectations.
In our last article, Getting the Most Out of Your Team: Measuring Performance to Optimize Success, we introduced the concept of analyzing individual traits from an individual performance management perspective. We examined a few specific profiles, and dissected how a handful of key characteristics could impact individual performance. In this piece, we’ll dive deeper into additional factors that influence culture. We’ll also look at examples of positions that would benefit – or suffer – if these characteristics are displayed to an extreme, as well as potential corrective techniques.
- Drive / Self-Motivation: Team members who possess high drive are self-motivated to undertake or continue a task without another’s prodding. These individuals typically complete their work ahead of schedule – sometimes, before it has even been assigned. Generally speaking, self-motivation is regarded as a positive trait across the board. Who doesn’t want a direct report who anticipates business needs and gets ahead of the work?
However, self-motivation could cause issues if displayed to an extreme. For example, imagine a millennial staff member. Millennials are notoriously eager for rapid advancement and professional development. As a result, millennials sometimes display extreme self-motivation in order to gain recognition from leadership. However, if they don’t receive that recognition, the employee may become frustrated and eventually look elsewhere for employment. While the employee’s self-motivation wasn’t directly the issue, their expectations for the results of their hard work weren’t met, which caused conflict. (As a side note, keep an eye out for a future article specifically covering millennial performance management.)
Obviously, a lack of self-motivation is also a big issue when it comes to professional performance. Warning signs of unmotivated employees include missing deadlines, consistently arriving late to work or leaving early, sub-par work product that doesn’t match the employee’s capabilities, and a lack of interest in advancement or recognition.
The key to stabilizing self-motivation is increasing engagement. Inviting both highly-motivated and under-motivated employees to participate in strategy meetings, or asking for employees’ thoughts on business decisions, are two simple ways to increase engagement. The highly-motivated millennial will feel recognized and appreciated, and the unmotivated employee will be forced to engage in the organization’s culture.
- Competitiveness: Friendly competition can be very healthy within an organization, particularly within service-based industries. Programs designed to recognize and reward employees for their achievements are generally received positively.
Of course, as we all know, some team members can take competition too far, which can have a negative effect on morale. Imagine an experienced Sales Manager who is responsible for motivating his team of junior salespeople. In doing so, he decides to create a monthly competition for highest billings, in which he also participates. As expected, he wins the award every month, as he’s a much more experienced salesperson than his team members. As a result, his team becomes unmotivated and the competition is counter-productive.
Lack of competition can also be detrimental to an organization. Even if your organization is not structured in a way that encourages friendly competition between employees, it’s always possible for employees to compete with their own previous performance.
Setting both attainable and stretch goals for team members addresses both of these issues. If an employee’s competitiveness is causing turmoil within your organization, try setting goals for the employee to beat their own records – rather than pitting him/her against peers. Similarly, if an employee is disinterested in competition, or if your organization is not structured to encourage competition, setting personal goals is a great way to increase engagement and motivation.
- Willingness to Express Thoughts / Confront Issues: Effective self-expression is critical for both personal and professional success. Self-expression also entails many sub-characteristics; for example, some individuals are able to easily express affection, but struggle when expressing anger or dissatisfaction.
Both under- and over-expression can cause conflict within an organization. Consider a leader who is constantly expressing new ideas that aren’t fully-conceptualized. A constant barrage of new information can cause team members to become confused regarding the direction of a project, which may result in frustration and slower turnaround times.
Alternatively, imagine a leader who is so under-expressive that employees are unsure (or unaware) of their specific role within a team. Further, under-expressive leaders are less likely to confront issues with employees, which can also lead to frustration.
An appropriate balance must be reached in each of these scenarios. Coach leadership on best practices for communicating expectations to their team, and try to enforce an open door policy within your organization. If you find that certain leaders under-express anger or gratitude, you may want to consider involving HR in the situation. HR can assist with implementing rewards programs, or step in if a supervisor is consistently unnecessarily harsh.
- Concentration / Awareness: As we discussed in our last article, concentration and awareness are two of the most important characteristics to consider for any position. Concentration is defined by your ability to focus on a specific task at hand, ignoring irrelevant internal and external distractors, while awareness requires constant vigilance of your surroundings. Being highly-focused while also remaining aware is particularly important for high-pressure roles with constantly-changing priorities.
As an example, consider an employee who is highly-focused, but lacks awareness. This employee will likely get tunnel vision when tasked with a project, focusing only on that single assignment. While the end work product may be excellent, if the employee is not also aware of other factors, such as upcoming deadlines, their overall performance will likely be negatively impacted.
Alternatively, consider an employee who is highly aware, but lacks focus. These types of individuals are more reactive, and may be excellent multi-taskers. However, these individuals may also be prone to starting projects and leaving them unfinished, or starting an assignment with enthusiasm but quickly losing interest. Of course, this will also have a negative effect on performance, particularly if their position requires repetitive work.
Increasing concentration or awareness can be difficult. First, consider whether there’s opportunity to maximize each of these profile types’ strengths. For example, the highly-focused employee will likely thrive in a role that requires steadfast attention to detail, such as writing, editing, or data entry. The highly-aware employee is more likely to thrive in roles that require high reactivity and short bursts of focus, such as customer service roles. While it is possible to train employees to improve their awareness or focus, it may also be in the organization’s best interest to assign roles to employees that leverage their inherent strengths in these areas.
As you can see, these broad categories consist of endless sub-categories of character traits which define an individual’s overall personality profile. However, if you’re able to identify which behaviors within these categories are most effective for each specific position within your organization, you can then pinpoint which traits are desirable for new hires to possess – and can also implement effective performance management techniques to optimize your current team members’ performance.
If you’re having trouble figuring out where to start, consider employees who were particularly successful – or unsuccessful – in each of the roles within your organization. Which characteristics did these employees possess that contributed to their success? Which characteristics would you prefer to avoid in future hires? You can then put together a basic profile for each position, which will increase the efficacy of both your interviewing and talent management techniques.
With this individualized, holistic approach to talent management, you will not only reduce the risk of making bad hires – but will also increase employee engagement, and ultimately construct a corporate culture which continues to positively drive desirable behaviors.
Corporate culture is dynamic and ever-evolving, but with these tools and techniques, you’ll be better-positioned to not only define, but also control and maintain an optimized corporate culture.
Coauthor/Shawn G. Baker
Cochran, Cochran & Yale
Executive Search & Leadership Advisory
Cochran, Cochran & Yale
Executive Search & Leadership Advisory