Have you ever seen what happens when gasoline goes bad? Spoiler alert: It's not good. In fact, if you don't have the right fuel in your tank, the consequences are disastrous. Just like car fuel, if you don't have the right company culture in place, you can find yourself broken-down on the side of the road. And overcoming a broken down anything--whether it be a car or company culture--is never easy.

So, do you have the right fuel in your tank? If you're broken down due to bad culture, or if you're merely looking to get better, this is a question you've got to answer--and often. Then once you have the answer, be prepared to take some difficult steps to get better. Because no matter how bad things may be, finding and using the right fuel is going to get you up and running toward your goals.

Below are six steps to improve your culture. The first three steps are specifically for the broken-down cultures. Just like you need a tow truck to bring your car to the shop, there are additional tasks required when your culture breaks down (But don't worry, fixing a culture doesn't involve sitting in the front seat of the tow truck and wondering what that smell is). Steps four, five and six are relevant to everyone, no matter how smoothly your engine is running.

1. Rebuild with best principles in mind, not just best practices. Believe it or not, an automobile can run on bad fuel. You can even put diesel fuel into a gas engine (or vice versa) and it'll work for a while. The problem is the car won't perform very well, and eventually it will break down. It's the same with bad culture.

So, filling your time with activities designed to build culture isn't necessarily helpful to you if those activities don't build the right culture. For example, if you determine you're a company that cares a great deal about being friendly to the environment, going to a monster truck rally for a company party may not make sense. Even if the event is a rip-roaring blast.

When you rebuild a culture, you have to figure out exactly what kind of fuel you need before planning specific activities. This means focusing on principles, not practices. Take the time to identify your organization's DNA. Honestly evaluate who you are. Figure out what it is about your product or service that will inspire the type of employees you want (besides a paycheck), and write down your company values.

Once your values are in place, clearly and accurately define your mission and vision statements (a mission statement explains your reason for existing and a vision statement describes who you want to eventually become). Setting these principles in place establishes a firm foundation for the rest of your culture. Now, instead of a truck rally, you can go plant trees at a local park or make hammocks out of recycled six-pack rings.

2. Be humble and open. Rebuilding a culture is hard; there are no two ways about it. And it requires everyone to be better, beginning with leaders. When your company culture goes bad--just like when your car breaks down--it can be embarrassing. When it happens, leadership has to show genuine humility, acknowledging any shortcomings and being honest about the organization's failings. Otherwise, how can you learn from prior mistakes? A simple email or speech at a company meeting from the CEO might be all it takes, but it has to be sincere and heartfelt. And it must be followed up with consistent actions that prove they meant it.

From there, you must strive for better--more open--communication throughout the company. Culture should be discussed on a regular basis. Employee's opinions should be considered when making major culture changes, whether they come from performance reviews or surveys or conversation (or overheard chatter in the break room). In the end, everybody on the team should feel like they were part of the culture overhaul. It needs to feel like a team project. Not only will this ensure that everyone is on board, but everyone will know exactly what is expected of them.

3. Rip and replace. When fixing a broken culture, you can't always afford to spend your time tweaking failed strategies and initiatives. Sometimes you need to find the elements of your organization that aren't working, and simply eliminate them. Rip them out of the fabric of your company and replace them entirely.

For example, you might have a rewards program that your sales team has never been satisfied with. Instead of band-aiding the problem by throwing money at it, you might consider scrapping the whole thing altogether and starting from scratch. Dig deep and figure out what exactly motivates your team--not just financially, but psychologically as well.

Sometimes the thing that needs replaced is a member of your staff. Obviously, this is an especially hard thing to do. But if you've defined your mission, vision and values and still have staff members who refuse to comply to those critical building blocks of your organization, it's best for you (and frankly, for them as well) to let go and move on. Your team needs to be united, or past failures will continue to creep into the culture and ruin your best intentions.

4. Implement your values into regular activities. The values you define for your organization will mean nothing if you don't intertwine them into everyday work. Otherwise, your culture will evolve on its own, and whether it continues to match your values or not will be a tossup. Start by finding ways to incorporate your values into the following activities:

  • One-on-ones - It will be a lot easier for managers to know how to manage their employees when they can use company values as a guide. For example, let's say an employee is having a hard time getting to work on time, and one of your values is "Be dependable." Rather than saying, "You're tardy and I'm sick of it," a manager can refer to the value and set goals with the employee to achieve it.
  • Company meetings - By discussing company values with everyone, not only can you ensure the whole company is on the same page, but you can also stress to the whole team just how important your values are. This is also a good time to educate your people about your mission and vision. As soon as an employee loses sight of the why, the how and what will start to suffer too.
  • Recruiting efforts - Most companies try to recruit for culture fits, but being a culture fit is more than just sharing similar personalities or interests with current employees ("Hey, I like Led Zeppelin, too!"). It's about sharing common values. By gauging candidates on their values, you'll be able to find the right people and, perhaps equally important, weed out those who would become thorns in the workplace.

5. Use the right technologies to jumpstart your efforts. You have a product or service that you provide, so sometimes it can be difficult to spend the amount of time you'd like to improve your culture. With the help of technology you can automate time-consuming tasks and free yourself to work on culture.

For example, there are onboarding automation tools that allow you to spend less time doing paperwork on first days and more time initiating people into your culture. There are also performance management tools that are turning traditional performance reviews on their heads, making them more useful in quickly identifying employees who are hurting the culture and giving direction on how to get them back on board.

6. Keep your eye on the fuel gauge. Remember that, just like a car, your culture will need constant fuel to thrive. Don't look at rebuilding (or building or improving) your culture like it's an ad hoc project--because it's not. Maintaining a great culture is an ongoing process that requires constant attention and care. You just have to always be honest with yourself and be prepared to make the necessary improvements, whether you're broken down on the side of the road, or merely looking to speed up the journey to your ultimate goal.

Published on: Feb 29, 2016