In the popular press, it's easy to find articles that will convince you that companies with a good culture, such as Google, do it by lavishing perks and benefits, including some combination of free meals, trips and parties, financial bonuses, gyms, and a dog-friendly environment.
These things are clearly good for morale, but its not so clear that they translate into a competitive advantage.
In my own years of experience as a business advisor, improving the company culture is still a major challenge to company leaders, many of whom were raised in a different era, or struggle trying to balance the rising costs of perks and benefits against measurable growth in productivity and profits.
They are still looking for key leadership feedback that their culture is driving their business.
I was pleased to find some specific guidance in this regard in a new book, Five Frequencies: Leadership Signals that turn Culture into Competitive Advantage, by the team of Jeff Grimshaw, Tanya Mann, Lynne Viscio, and Jennifer Landis.
These authors present more than 20 years of research, including case studies and metrics, showing how culture really makes or breaks your business. I have found that while many of their lessons may seem obvious, others are not so intuitive. Here are a few that I found insightful, and consistent with my own observations:
1. Heated debates are a good thing for a healthy culture.
I don't encourage conflict for its own sake. But I've learned that heated debate is a good thing, when you are not afraid to voice dissenting opinions and able to understand opposing views.
It creates ownership and engagement that may be missing with consensus decisions or management edicts.
To make sure all debates stay healthy, always make sure the discussions are facilitated and limited in scope and time, to prevent wandering off subject and redundancy. Disparagement of a team member's character is always inappropriate and toxic.
2. Leaders own culture, supported by HR-- not vice versa.
Human Resources and other support functions can provide invaluable feedback and support, but if you count on them to move the needle on culture, it won't work.
Leaders must initiate and model culture shifting efforts-- it's not something you can delegate.
HR leaders are your culture coaches, and responsible for aligning managers and employees with the desired culture. They can foster a sense of ownership for the culture, measure progress, and assess accountability throughout all levels of the company.
3. What the team feels is more important than what they know.
One of your most important culture responsibilities is making your employees feel truly valued on a regular basis despite internal fears and conflicting feedback from their peers.
Feelings are known to statistically produce the biggest impact on future performance, as well as morale.
Knowing things intellectually is easily overridden by emotions, even in the best of times. In addition, most business knowledge, such as the reason for a lost sale, is subject to interpretation. A positive culture of trust is required to neutralize uncertain feelings.
4. It's easier to go from bad to good, than from good to great.
When things are bad and failure is not an option, leaders really focus on doing the right thing.But when a great culture is a desire rather than a must have, it's easy to get distracted by other things, such as operational improvements. During these periods culture gains often are lost.
The famous author, Jim Collins, in his Good to Great discussions, points out that you as the driver can only go so far, without the right people in all the key seats. Getting those key people, including hiring, training, and coaching takes a long time to accomplish.
5. Ongoing culture steps require tuning of measurements.
All your efforts to improve the culture may be moot if you don't continually hone your ability to measure results and respond to feedback. Nothing frustrates employees more than continuing to provide the same feedback time after time in engagement surveys while nothing appears to change.
For example, the questions on your engagement survey will surface the initial set of challenges, but once those are addressed, you need different questions to get to the next level. Measuring and tuning culture is an iterative process, while integrating business results.
The overall approach to culture change that I and the authors recommend is to first assess your current culture for a liability, or a competitive disadvantage. Start with addressing specific things that your team needs to more consistently know, feel, and do.
I assure you that when you measure and strengthen culture along these lines, better business performance follows.