Who Drives Your Corporate Culture?

Corporate culture often is presented as a top-down proposition, but there are some who believe it grows from the bottom up, from the employees at the lowest ranks up toward the top, instead. What do you think?

A column online on CIO, “Who’s the boss of workplace culture?” by Sharon Florentine, addresses a study by the same name that showed evidence that it is your employees—not senior executives—who drive your corporate culture. According to the study, which polled more than 1,800 working U.S. adults, “about one-third of HR professionals said that the head of HR defines the culture, while only 10 percent of managers and 3 percent of employees agree. Twenty-six percent of managers say their executive team defines the culture, while only 11 percent of HR professionals and 9 percent of employees feel the same. Twenty-nine percent of employees overall—though that figure increases to 40 percent of Millennials—say they define workplace culture, with only 9 percent of HR professionals and 13 percent of managers agreeing, according to the study.

The owner of an optometry practice, with whom I recently worked on an article for a health trade magazine, noted just that sentiment—that it was his employees, rather than himself, who set the tone for the office. It was his job to train and encourage them, but in carrying out their daily responsibilities and interacting with patients, they were far more powerful than him in creating an office culture.

With many now believing employees are the most important drivers of company culture, the question becomes how to allow them to create the most positive culture possible. The practice owner I worked on that article with said he believes the thing to do is to liberate employees by setting them free from fear. If employees are always walking on eggshells, too afraid to make decisions on behalf of customers for fear of making a mistake, the culture will be unproductive and repressed, rather than enthusiastic and proactive. To embolden his employees, the practice owner trains them to use their best judgment on their own when working with patients, rather than constantly looking for approval from peers and managers. Then, after the patient interaction is complete, and the patient has left happy, the employee goes over the interaction with a colleague or manager to see if it could have been done differently, so improvements can be made the next time the situation arises. The emphasis is on constant learning, rather than constant rules, regulations, and the need for approvals.

In other words, this practice owner empowers his employees more than managing or regulating them. Do you empower your employees to make decisions on their own, or do you feel it’s important to have a process for all decisions that need to be made? The process wrapped around decision-making can make a company feel legally safer, but it can be detrimental to company culture, sending the message to employees that they are not trusted enough to use the expertise they’ve gained to serve customers in what they think is the best way possible. That message then stifles employee enthusiasm for their work. It’s hard to be excited and creative when every step along the way is wrapped in needed approvals. Uninspired, forever-hindered employees then become dispirited and detached and reflect those feelings to newly hired peers and customers. They also communicate those feelings with their attitude to managers and executives, creating an unhealthy cycle. Repressive processes put in place by executives leave employees feeling disengaged, and then those employees send that spirit of disengagement back to the place where it originated.

How can trainers work with managers to ensure employees are empowered, rather than regulated, to establish an upbeat, productive corporate culture?


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