Everyone knows there are unspoken rules that lead to a toxic culture (like risks are actually punished, not rewarded). But what happens when leaders don't seem to care about the company culture in and of itself?

A new study released today (March 12) by employee engagement company Achievers indicates that's the case in an astonishing number of companies. In fact, 91 percent of employees did not see leaders as very committed to improving company culture. 38 percent have either "never heard senior leadership talk about culture" or say "they talk about it, but there's no action to back it up."

If even a small percentage of employees truly believe that leaders are checked-out on culture, it's time for a gut check. Culture isn't something you do after you get to strategy, it is strategy.

So how do you quickly address such perceptions? The problem is that you just can't start saying you care about culture or that "you'll see some culture building initiatives from the leadership team soon". Employees won't buy it and you can't wait for that anyway.

You have to start showing, not telling, that you care about culture and the employee experience. It starts by appealing to desired, basic, shared values and behaviors.  

Gallup research, and my own experience, says the fastest way to make an imprint on this front is to immediately engage in three behaviors in particular. They're powerful daily actions that will soon set the tone that you care about what employee's experience every day by coming to work. Start with this powerful foundation and then get to building your unique cultural environment on top:

1. Give "respectcognition".

Name one employee that doesn't want basic respect and to be recognized (in whatever form works for them)? I've always thought that the two go hand in hand, that when you show respect for another you are, by default, recognizing their value as a human being.

And the extent of the need for both of these basics might surprise you.

University of Michigan's professor of business administration and psychology, Jane Dutton, says that an incredible 90 percent of workers believe that the lack of everyday civility in the workplace has become a grave issue.

So how to show respectcognition? With simple daily habits like remembering and using the name of everyone you meet, openly recognizing the value of others opinions and beliefs, and by inquiring about each employee's well-being and then listening--really listening.

2. Be accountable for accountability.

Good employees will quit, even when you thought they were happy, not just because they're not being recognized, but because of who else is. When questionable promotions happen for people who don't deserve it, it indicates an underlying lack of clear performance standards equally applied to everyone. I've personally experienced a lack of clarity on what really matters and how it's measured in an organization--no coincidence it was also one of the most corrosive cultures I've ever experienced. 

Likewise, when leaders let cultural "bad eggs" continue to stink up the organization without retribution, it kills a culture. Leaving under-performers unaddressed is one of the greatest disservices a leader can inflict upon his/her organization.

But as leaders look to ramp up cultural positivity quickly via enhanced accountability, it's important to explain why the sudden change or it will worsen the cultural problem (coming across as a sudden burst of finger-pointing). And behaviors that embrace a sense of accountability absolutely must be role-modeled first and foremost by a leader who owns their mistakes and shows up engaged and involved with the organization in helpful ways.

3. Stop keeping things close to the vest if you want them to invest.

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner indicated that the number one job skill that's lacking amongst employees today is communication. Well, employees learn habits from their bosses, and if workers view corporate America as a cultural wasteland, odds are their bosses are hardly role-modeling ideal behavior on this front.

But the thought of "communication" is so broad--so let's pinpoint what about communication specifically influences culture with the most impact and speed. And that's having leaders that simply care enough (or not) to invest the time it takes to do it right. It's about caring enough to communicate not only what's happening, but why it's happening, providing reality and hope along the way.

The alternative cuts deeper than just cultural wounds. In the absence of communication, employees will fill in the blanks, especially during times of change--and that never leads to anything good.

Cultural change doesn't happen overnight, but that doesn't mean you can't hit the on-ramp at a brisk speed, immediately.

Published on: Mar 12, 2019
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