5 Tips to Build an Outstanding Company Culture

Building a culture that reflects your values and capitalizes on your strengths takes some soul searching and thoughtful policies.

You’ll find two types of workplace culture out there:

1. The kind that arises in fits and starts, as turnover shapes it

2. The kind that is thoughtfully guided and supported

The second type shapes the company as much as it forms its own entity, because culture is reciprocal. Business leaders who take advantage of its self-perpetuating nature will cash in on a positive addition to their brand and a high return on a minimal investment.

But the opposite is also true. Letting culture take its own course, rather than harnessing the potential energy of people and practices, makes companies vulnerable to a lackluster or negative culture. This drain on energy hampers productivity first, and profitability next.

Think about it: The most successful organizations in the world—such as Google, Nike, and Apple—have strong, definable cultures, and they didn’t occur by accident. Building a culture that reflects your values and capitalizes on your strengths just takes some soul searching and thoughtful policies. Here are five ways to implement a culture initiative.

1. Listen Well.

Who gets more out of a meeting? The speaker? Or the audience? Sharing information is designed to benefit the listener, but many people “listen” just long enough to generate their own thoughts to share. While brainstorming and collaboration are valuable, getting as much out of a presentation as possible is a prerequisite to effective teamwork.

Create a culture of thoughtful listening by modeling it from the top down. Business leaders can demonstrate the importance of good listening at every opportunity:

  • In meetings, without multitasking or interrupting with their own ideas
  • In employee reviews, by asking open-ended questions and giving workers the floor
  • In casual encounters, by interacting with coworkers in an effort to learn more about them, just by listening

Silence is a tool that lets us absorb what is being said and make note of key points. And a culture that prizes listening lets its members know that their contributions are appreciated, and their voices are heard.

2. Fail Well.

Companies that stand up for their workers’ good-faith efforts are richly rewarded—by grateful employees and by clients who appreciate their labor. This is best illustrated in company policy regarding mistakes. Two organizations known for handling this righteously are Southwest Airlines and adhesive manufacturer 3M.

Work doesn’t always go as planned, and when inadvertent mistakes happen, the choice is either to punish the perpetrator or to say, “You tried your best; that’s OK,” and move on. Southwest and 3M take the second route, siding with employees in questionable customer disputes or failed experiments.

Workers who know the company has their back will feel confident in difficult or uncertain situations. This encourages principled action and innovation, which sometimes results in better outcomes than expected, or improvement the next time around. It doesn’t mean you have to accept repeated errors or lazy work habits. It just means you support a culture that recognizes we’re all human.

3. Give Credit.

Perhaps the most visible and positive element of great culture is a company’s acknowledgment program. Salary increases and monetary awards have finite motivational currency, but appreciation costs nothing and pays off in many ways. Who doesn’t get the warm-fuzzies from hearing, “Good job!”

Supportive cultures have multiple avenues for giving thanks. Just showing up day after day is easier to do when the boss says she’s glad you’re there. Going above and beyond the call of duty should be recognized—in private, one on one; in public, for all to see; as well as in peer-to-peer shout-outs that everyone can add to.

Besides building personal trust and loyalty in individuals, formal gestures of appreciation that are witnessed by staff have a positive, contagious effect. A little competition and peer envy motivates the group to strive harder, with the knowledge that effort will be recognized. Credit for good works will bring your team closer together.

4. Be Different.

Perhaps the greatest element of culture you can capitalize on is the one that your company, alone, possesses: its uniqueness. While other businesses may do what you do, they won’t do it the same way, with the same people. Open your eyes to what is singular about your company.

Eyewear manufacturer Warby Parker, for example, builds great public relations into its unique value system: For each sale it makes, it donates a pair of eyeglasses to folks in need. You can leverage your organization’s charitable giving, volunteer efforts, or even staff hobbies and special interests into its culture—and, therefore, its image. Your manner of doing business or the lexicon that has grown up around it are other possible marks of uniqueness.

Consider Starbucks’ coffee jargon. Just mention a venti Americano with a half-pump of vanilla, and people think Starbucks. The chain’s insider lingo reflects both its brand and the culture beneath it.

5. Measure Everything.

Finally, great culture doesn’t just have to be spontaneous or amorphous. These concepts may seem nebulous, but the more you can highlight and define them, the more powerful they will become. To know whether the elements of culture you’ve set in place are helpful, use metrics to see what works and what doesn’t.

Solicit feedback from employees and customers about how well they feel heard, supported, and appreciated. Ask what they think sets your business apart from others. Assign numeric values to their answers, track the data, and analyze it. Then encourage your strengths, and let them override your weaknesses.

Measurement will give you confidence in making decisions surrounding culture. Keep track of how your bottom line changes after implementing these new policies, too. The numbers will let you know when your culture has positively shaped your company...so your company can continue to support an outstanding culture.

Leadership speaker Chris Dyer is a performance and company culture expert, as well as founder and CEO of PeopleG2, a leading background check company. He has channeled what he has learned in his business and research into his best-selling book, “The Power of Company Culture” (Kogan Page, 2018).

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