An organizational culture comes about in one of two ways: (1) by careful design, or (2) haphazardly over time. Simply put, the culture is the result of rituals, behaviors and experiences that leadership allows to exist.
There are plenty of effective ways to build a great culture, align it with the strategy and create a system of shared values. But for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the people practices.
What do I mean by "people practices?"
From a leadership perspective, culture is largely effected by who we allow into our organizations, how we reward them, behaviors that are tolerated and how (and when) we decide people aren't a good fit. Organizations that will thrive in the twenty-first century will place culture at the top of the priority list - and managing your people practices is a great place to start. But things can go south very quickly when we don't thoughtfully create the appropriate culture and actively manage that culture every day.
Here are seven ways to gradually erode an organizational culture without even realizing we are doing it.
Sloppy Talent Acquisition Practices
As a former Navy SEAL, I can assure you that we place a huge emphasis on protecting our culture. But our community is often portrayed as being made up of buff, handsome 6'2" white guys who all look like they stepped off a recruiting posted. Why? Because that is exactly what we all look like! Just joking of course - I'm only 6'1".
I want to be careful using the term "culture fit" because that can often give the impression of a lack of diversity. In reality, we have a large amount of diversity and people from all walks of life in the Naval Special Warfare community. But our talent acquisition strategy is essentially our first line of defense when it comes to protecting that culture. But when managers only hire for skill-set and not shared values, the relationship rarely works and it gives the impression that culture isn't all that important.
Inconsistent Reward Mechanisms
In the SEAL Teams, we are expected to "embrace the suck" and approach our work with an all-in-all-the-time mentality. Anything less isn't tolerated. And public recognition isn't expected nor often given. Occasionally you receive a medal you don't want nor feel you deserve. That's about it. We do however enjoy publicly recognizing mistakes and failure - and we never let anything slide. It's wonderful - and there was never an HR department to run crying to!
In a well-defined company culture, the desired behaviors are publicly rewarded on a regular basis. People are held accountable and they hold themselves accountable. Reward mechanism must be consistent so everyone knows what is expected. Inconsistency breeds confusion and erodes culture quickly.
Behaviors That are Tolerated
When it comes to culture, leaders and managers get what they tolerate. For example, if mediocrity is allowed you will successfully build a mediocre team that achieves mediocre results. But I don't know many entrepreneurs or managers that actually want that. But it happens when we don't pay attention or proactively manage culture.
If behaviors that don't align with the value system and desired culture are allowed to persist, it sends the message that leadership doesn't cherish authenticity - that they let some people get away with poor behavior because they bring in sales or are a subject matter expert. Which leads me to my next point.
When this happens, everyone sees it. It creates a toxic environment where employee turnover will skyrocket (except of course those falling into the "favorites" category!) and trust deteriorates quickly - both of which have a direct negative impact on the financial health of any organization.
There is nothing wrong with building close relationships with those you work with. But we can't confuse those relationships with how and when we reward people. If we are always treating certain people better than others, it becomes highly visible and people will talk. The rumor mill isn't a great place for this type of gossip to persist. A great way to combat this often unconscious behavior is to make a point to "manage by walking around" for a few minutes every day.
Pulling the "Firing" Trigger to Slowly
As the saying goes - hire slow, fire fast. Again, leaders get what they tolerate. I've made the mistake of hanging on to certain team members WAY too long. Why? Because they were decent at their job, would take a while to replace, had problems at home (so I felt bad)...the list of justifications goes on and on. But making tough decision is the burden of command. And even though I didn't directly manage those people, I allowed their managers to keep them around.
When we fail to make those tough decisions, we aren't protecting the team and lose the trust and respect of our best people. This can also show favoritism and creates a toxic environment where poor performance and behaviors unfit for the culture are allowed to thrive.
Ignoring Your Star Players
As SEALs, we are all expected to be star performers. That's what makes us the most elite special operations fighting force in existence. We don't get an extra pat on the back for doing our jobs. The reality is that in the civilian world, people need to be recognized for their work. But it's a fallacy of leadership when we assume our star performers are happy and engaged.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease. When we make the mistake of only focusing on turning "B" players into "A" players or putting out fires caused by actively disengaged employees, our best people get left behind. Just because they are performing well doesn't mean they don't need attention like everyone else.
Inauthentic Value Systems
Part of being a great leader or manager is living the values on and off the battlefield. Again, the burden of command. The values of any organization should ideally dictate every decision, communication, reward system, strategy and talent acquisition program. When a values-based approach to decision-making isn't led from the top, it won't likely exist anywhere in the organization.
But values aren't just words on a web page - they should be the foundation of why the company exists. In the SEAL Teams, we hold close the values of teamwork, accountability, trust, transparency in communication and loyalty to country and team. It's crucial to our survival and the fulfillment of our mission - to defeat our nations enemies. The same philosophy should be applied to any high-performance organization that has a desire to achieve winning results.
Building a protecting a great culture is simple but not easy. Leaders and managers just have to pay attention.