Are Your Culture-Building Initiatives Actually Hurting Your Culture?




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Building a strong workplace culture is a lot like exercising.

Exercise is critical to maintaining a healthy body. Nurturing culture is critical to maintaining a healthy workplace.

Most adults know full well that exercise is important to their health. Most workplace leaders know full well that culture is important to their business.

But perhaps the most important similarity is this: just as exercising improperly or with bad form can actually do more harm than good, culture-building efforts implemented without the right level of grounding, commitment and follow-through can actually hurt your workplace culture.

With that in mind, let’s examine three of the most common characteristics of culture-building initiatives gone awry, and look at ways to ensure your efforts to build a healthy workplace have the desired effect.

Point-in-Time Initiatives With No Follow-Through

Perhaps the biggest mistake organizations make in attempting to build a strong workplace culture is to orchestrate point-in-time culture-building initiatives that aren’t grounded in a broader mission or vision and aren’t accompanied by a thorough follow-up plan.

My favorite example of this is the hackathon. Now, don’t get me wrong, no one loves a good hackathon more than me. But a one-time, randomly scheduled hackathon that exists in a vacuum serves little purpose. Sure, maybe your brightest minds will use the opportunity to come up with a few neat innovations. But are you genuinely prepared to act on those innovations? Do you have a plan in place to enable your team to build and expand on the ideas the hackathon generated? Or are you simply planning to return to business as usual the next day as if the hackathon never happened?

If “we had a hackathon last month” is the answer to what you’re doing to create a culture of innovation, then I’ve got some bad news for you: you’re not creating a culture of innovation. Similarly, if “we gave everyone one day off to volunteer” is the answer to what you’re doing to build a connection to the community, you’re not building any connection to the community. 

Isolated, point-in-time initiatives that aren’t connected to broader plans and values do nothing to build your culture. But they can do plenty to hurt it. Think about it: if you carve out one day a year to make something a priority — be it innovation, team-building, charitable giving or anything else — aren’t you really just highlighting the fact that those things aren’t a priority the other 364 days of the year?

Related Article: Corporate Culture, Employee Engagement and That Whole Breakfast Thing

Autonomy on Paper, But Not in Practice

Rare is the healthy workplace culture in which employees don’t feel a strong sense of autonomy. Most organizations realize this and have taken great pains to create the impression of worker autonomy. The expression “culture of autonomy” has become a common part of the modern recruiting pitch. 

But autonomy on paper and autonomy in practice are distinctly different. Plenty of organizations excel at the former. Far too many struggle with the latter. And I can assure you your employees can feel the difference.

As with most things, autonomy is far more about your leaders than it is your written policies. Your policies and processes may allow for autonomy, but those policies and processes aren’t worth the (hopefully digital!) paper they’re printed on if you don’t have leaders who are comfortable with their teams having autonomy. Moreover, autonomy is only as useful as your willingness to invest in the training, tools, support and resources your team members need to actually work independently.

The only thing worse than not giving your teams autonomy is to give it to them and then have to yank it back because you hired the wrong leader or decided you’re not willing to invest in the necessary tools and resources. Every time you take decision-making abilities away, you have to give it back five-fold before your employees will trust that it’s genuine. When it comes to autonomy, if you preach but don’t practice, you’re damaging your culture far more than you’re helping it.

Related Article: 3 Ways to Put More Control in the Hands of Remote Employees

Touting Balance, But Ignoring Self-Care

Balance is another must-have component of a healthy culture. Employees want it and employers know it’s necessary. But once again, advertising a strong work-life balance and putting policies in place to allow it is only a first step. Actually making it realistic and possible for employees to engage with those policies is the necessary next step. Too often, our explicit policies tout balance, but our implicit policies make it exceedingly difficult for employees to exercise self-care.

Let’s take the example of flexible working hours. Everybody loves flexible work hours. That is, until their manager rolls their eyes the moment they attempt to work anything but 9-5. Same with unlimited vacation policies. On paper, fantastic. But what are you doing to make it possible for people to actually take vacation and rest when they need it? After all, what good is vacation time people don’t feel comfortable using? Remember, the fastest way to damage your workplace culture is to have “worker-friendly” policies that workers don’t view as genuine.

Related Article: Can Asynchronous Collaboration Survive Our Always-On Workplaces?

Great Workplace Cultures Rely on Consistency and Commitment

Just like successful exercise programs, great workplace cultures are built by having a broad vision and purpose and pursuing it with commitment and consistency. Checking boxes doesn’t build culture. Commitment and consistency do. Know what your values are and be relentless about tying your traditions and behaviors to those values.

Don’t just have a hackathon. Have a hackathon that’s part of a network of recurring events aimed at fostering innovation and giving your brightest minds the freedom to roam. Don’t just tell employees they have autonomy. Be purposeful about ensuring their daily work is grounded in that autonomy. Don’t just offer an unlimited vacation policy. Be deliberate about cross-training and ensuring no one becomes a single tower of knowledge such that they’re uncomfortable about ever truly unplugging.

Be honest about the culture you’re trying to build, and then be even more honest about the steps you’re implementing to build it. Say what you mean and mean what you say, and the rest will take care of itself.

Melissa Boggs is vice president, business agility at Sauce Labs. An experienced leadership, agility, and culture coach and executive, Melissa is a Certified Enterprise Coach who blends education, experience, and enthusiasm to work closely with leaders on their most challenging business problems.





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