You’ve probably seen the research: Companies with effective cultures are proven to deliver superior business results – greater profits, lower turnover, and higher levels of engagement, to name a few. That’s because truly differentiated company cultures drive business strategy and performance.
Company culture has always been important – but today, it matters even more. According to research from Gallup, only four out of ten U.S. workers strongly agree with the statement, “The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.” We are living in a post-pandemic world that is increasingly uncertain and complex, adding to significant changes in employee expectations, a shortage of talent and skills, and increasing pressure from new advancements in artificial intelligence and automation. The good news is that companies that clearly define and focus on building Deep Trust and High Expectations™ cultures stand out from the rest.
An important part of taking an intentional approach to building culture is understanding what it is. We define culture as “what makes us, us.”
While building a strong culture is everyone’s responsibility, there may be different expectations and success factors depending on your role. Whether you are a CEO, business or functional leader, people manager, or employee, there are clear steps you can take to build a strong company culture.
We talk about this as a top-down and bottom-up approach – and it’s not just about what each of these stakeholders can do to build culture, but it’s about how they can work together to inform, influence, and build on each other. This has the potential to create a flywheel effect, which results in true, sustained success.
Leaders have a special role to play in building corporate culture. They are in a unique position to define the core cultural elements of the company, including the mission, vision, and values frameworks. They also make decisions around business strategy, talent strategy, when and how people communicate, where and how people work, and everything in between. All of these elements are defining features of a company’s culture.
But just as the decision-making power leaders wield is important, so too is their elevated status and visibility in the organization. Based on their heightened status, power, and compensation, leaders are naturally seen as highly successful people in an organization–and, therefore, the ones to emulate. All eyes are on leadership as the role models of which cultural behaviors and norms are not only accepted but required for success. And whether intended or not, how leaders conduct themselves becomes the example teams will look to replicate as they seek to grow and advance themselves.
Strong, well-articulated values are critical to strong company culture. A company’s values are the shared commitments that define the organization’s character and the principles that are held most dear. They serve as both the anchor point and the north star that align leaders in their decision-making, behavior, and ways of working. Creating and activating an authentic set of company values is foundational to building a strong culture and give leaders a framework to use for modeling successful mindsets, norms, and behaviors across the company.
Leaders are in the unique position to set expectations across the company–not just related to achieving business objectives, but in how people behave at work. And while strong culture results in stronger business outcomes, toxic workplace cultures can damage performance. Leaders who hold employees accountable to treating each other with respect, civility, and alignment with the company’s values serve not just the culture but the bottom line too.
From there, it’s critical that leaders take action to ensure that managers, employees, and their fellow leaders are conducting themselves in a way that honors and upholds the culture. As an example, if a leader consistently achieves above-target sales goals but does so in a way that undermines your stated values, your executive leadership should take action. Remember that inaction also speaks volumes, and a failure to act when needed can contribute to a “say-do” disconnect in your culture.
As noted above, given their prominence and influence, leaders themselves play an outsized role in establishing what the company culture will be through their words, actions, and deeds. Leaders’ ability to walk the talk makes or breaks whether or not the values and other cultural foundations become more than just words on the wall and are integrated into the organization’s identity and ways of working over the long term.
If leaders set the tone for the culture of the organization, managers are the arbiters of the day-to-day experience. Marcus Buckingham has famously stated and restated that “People leave their manager, not their company.” Supporting this claim, Gallup has found that “the role of the manager is a dominant factor in the employee experience…Managers account for an astounding 70% of the variance in team engagement, and their efforts substantially impact the bottom line of entire organizations.”
So it’s no surprise that strong company cultures are executed in large part through the daily behaviors of managers. Managers’ ability to create a sense of connection for employees to the company at large is critical to the experience of the culture overall.
Given their day-to-day presence with teams, it’s important that managers also understand and utilize the company values as a way of life. This creates consistency across teams and also pushes the desired ways of working down further into the organization. Referencing company values in communications, rewarding employees for culturally-aligned behavior, and returning to the company’s values as a framework for decision-making are all small actions managers can take to build a culture in an aligned and effective way.
Great managers serve as the much-needed link between employees and senior leadership. Ideally, they connect employees to the broader strategy and culture of an organization. And the more connected and communicative managers are with their teams, the more connected people will be to the culture. Practices like weekly team huddles and 1:1 meetings are key touchpoints to keep employees connected. Others include celebrations–such as milestones like anniversaries or birthdays, or key successes. Whether virtually, in person, or with a hybrid approach, striving to keep teams connected is a key action managers can take to build a strong culture.
While living the values and keeping people connected build culture, behaviors such as playing favorites or treating employees inequitably break it. As a manager, strive to treat members of your team consistently–when it comes to facetime, attention, sharing information, recognition and appreciation, work assignments, and more. What that looks like in practice for each team member may look different–but the goal is the same, which is for all employees to feel they are highly valued members of the team.
Employees who are not in formal management or leadership positions also have an important role to play in building culture. A person’s experience of work often comes down to the daily relationships they have with their colleagues. It’s about how they feel when interacting with others on work projects, at company events, on Zoom calls, and everything in between.
When approached with inclusion and care, all of these interactions can serve to create a sense of community and belonging at work–which are fundamental components of a strong culture. It’s the feeling of being among a trusted group of people who care about you and value who you are and what you bring to the team.
It’s easy to fall into the same familiar patterns of who we work with, ask for help, or talk to at company events. Think about how you can stretch yourself to expand your network of “go to” colleagues–especially those who may be new to the organization or with a different background from you. Incorporating new people and perspectives will also help you learn and grow alongside the benefits to your company’s culture.
Make a habit of checking in with your colleagues to learn more about who they are as people with lives outside of work–what hobbies they enjoy, what their interests are, and their background. It can be as simple as asking about weekend plans or how their day is going. While it may not seem connected to work, the more we can share with our colleagues about ourselves as full people, the more we bring to the workplace overall.
Nothing helps build a community like helping people out when they need it and showing a sense of care. And at work, all of us will need support from our colleagues at one time or another–whether it’s help with a heavy workload or covering job responsibilities to attend to personal needs outside of work. So the next time you see a colleague who needs help, lend a hand! Not only does it feel great to help others, but your support will strengthen the broader culture and the team.
Although every person — from individual contributors to leadership — plays a role in culture, making the most of company culture begins with you. As an employee, you are building toward something greater at work, and just like other aspects of your life, you’ll reap the rewards when you put in more effort. Actively participating in a few company activities outside of your ‘day-to-day’ job can enhance your experience and joy. For example, consider utilizing your company’s matching gift offers, taking volunteer time, joining an ERG, or signing up for hackathons or other company initiatives.
We often hear the misperception that company culture is “HR’s job.” While strong people-related policies and practices are important, all employees have a responsibility to the business and to one another in creating a positive culture. Regardless of a person’s job or function, everyone has an important role to play.
If you’re interested in learning more, read our case study to see how our team cultivated a scalable culture for sustainable growth.