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Why Building Company Culture Is Everyone's Responsibility

Everyone owns culture – but make sure responsibilities are clear.

By Gustavo Razzetti

June 16, 2022

Your workplace culture is the result of everyone's behavior. However, clear roles and responsibilities are needed.

Leaders play a vital role in building the culture of an organization. They're integral to shaping workplace culture by defining standards, modeling the right behaviors, and setting clear expectations of what is and isn't okay. However, that doesn't mean that they own the culture.

The usual assumption is that leaders own the culture. Not only in the sense of responsibility but also in having the last word about what the organization's culture should look like. This top-down approach to culture misses an important piece: an organization's culture is the result of everyone's behavior – it goes beyond what leaders say.

For example, a new hire's first impression of your culture is dramatically shaped by the first three people they talk to. Similarly, for a customer, your company culture is the result of their direct experience with a customer service employee.

Building a strong company culture is a shared responsibility.

Both leaders and employees should own the culture of the organization. In this post, I will address why it's critical that employees have a sense of ownership to move the culture forward. I will also discuss the specific roles and responsibilities for defining, designing, and displaying culture.

Who Owns Company Culture?

This question is tricky because the word "own" has different meanings depending on whom you ask. Owning could mean who has the final word – who the final decision-maker is regarding culture. Owning could also mean who's responsible for building or shaping an organization's culture.

For starters, there's some big confusion. Some people believe it's the sole responsibility of HR. Others think it's everyone's responsibility but fail to define clear accountability – who should do what. Some leaders believe they own culture but don't make time to address it properly.

A study by The Workforce Institute at Kronos unearthed conflicting opinions on who owns workplace culture, from who defines it to who drives it:

  • Forty percent (40%) of employees said that they define culture
  • Thirty-three percent (33%) of HR professionals said they define culture
  • Twenty-six percent (26%) of managers said the executive team should define culture
  • Twenty-eight percent (28%) of employees said no one actually defines culture

Evolving your company culture is a difficult task that requires time, work, and consistency. It demands a collective effort.

Although leaders have the last word in defining the culture, that doesn't mean they own it. Wise leaders understand that culture is the sum of everyone's behavior. They own the responsibility for defining the culture and they can declare the culture they want, but, most importantly, they focus on being consistent: their behavior often matches their words.

Whether they like it or not, leaders' behavior is always under scrutiny.

On the other hand, employees need to have more than a say. Their perspectives and experiences are not only crucial to understanding the current culture – the real one. Employees also need to be involved in the design portion, contributing to imagining and bringing to life the culture that will help them do their best work.

What is company culture? Even though most people refer to it as the "way we do things here," culture also includes "how we feel and think here." Culture is a system that involves emotions, mindsets, and – of course – behaviors.

It includes the emotions: how people feel about their employer, their job, their managers, and their colleagues. It also encompasses the mindset – the lens through which employees see reality (perfectionist, optimist, defeatist, toxic, you name it). Lastly, it includes the behaviors – from how people do the work to what is rewarded and punished.

When employees don't feel they have ownership of the company culture, they disengage from it.

A Culture of Apathy: The Case for Involving People

A top-down approach to culture drives apathy. Not only do leaders have a biased view of culture – usually better than the actual one – but also people feel bad when they aren't involved.

Employee apathy is often driven by a combination of factors – personal, situational, and cultural. People can be going through a rough patch or disengaged from their job. Managers who only lead by fear, threatening to punish those who don't follow their rules, demotivate people. A culture driven by efficiency – where only metrics, not the quality of work, count – can also give rise to apathy and disengagement.

A study by MIT Sloan Management points to a problem I've discussed many times on this blog: the culture that leaders think they have and what employees experience is very different.

As Douglas Ready, author of the research, wrote: "The gap between a leadership team's narrative describing its company's culture and how people actually felt about working there was widening. Employees cited large gaps in their perceptions of their organizations' readiness to compete, leadership skills, and fit-for-future mindset of their leaders, with 88% of employees reporting a lack of organizational preparedness."

Leaders are preaching to an unresponsive choir, according to the author. Not only are their cultural narratives perceived as unauthentic, but they also fail to inspire people. Organizations are suffering from a "broken culture syndrome."

Ready identifies three common triggers: culture clash disorder, cultural inertia, and toxic collapse – the most dangerous of all.

Cultural inertia is when employees feel powerless about improving the company culture. This is either because it's above their pay grade, they feel left out of the conversation, or they've been shut down when providing ideas for improvements.

Cultural inertia and apathy go hand in hand. When people are uninvolved in the culture design process, the result is usually harmful. Leaders can't move the culture forward if employees aren't on board.

Overcoming apathy starts by involving people in the conversation. Smart leaders define their culture intentionally. They involve employees along the journey to get input, feedback, and a reality check. Although they have the last word, they know that alignment results from participation, not imposing what the culture should be.

Let's review the different roles needed and who should play which.

Culture: Defining Clear Responsibilities

There are five key steps in the process of designing and implementing culture: Design, Define, Demonstrate, Demand, and Display.

Design: The process of selecting the type of culture you want and how the different building blocks will play. It starts by mapping the current culture and uncovering the gaps across different groups of the organizations. The process involves both senior leaders as well as employees – it's a collaborative effort.

Airbnb used to have six core values. Employees complained that there were too many and some didn't make sense. Not only did the leadership consider this input, but employees were involved in the process of defining the new core values. People provided feedback on what inflated or deflated Airbnb's culture. The insights were then used to eliminate some values, refresh others, and add new ones.

Define: Establish what the future will look like. It's about making it official and making sure everyone is clear. The responsibility lies on the leadership team – most specifically, the CEO of the organization.

Many years ago, Jeff Bezos established that speed should become Amazon's competitive advantage. He wanted to be first to market always. Thus, he encouraged his senior team to keep the decision-making velocity high. Bezos provided a rule of thumb: most decisions should be made with around 70% of the information the team wished it had. Waiting for more would slow Amazon down.

Demonstrate: Leaders play a critical role in modeling the desired behavior. They need to make sure that their actions match their words. Leaders and managers alike must set the example.

When Patagonia decided to create a culture of regular, ongoing feedback, the company decided that leaders should stop giving feedback and start asking their team members for feedback instead. Requesting feedback sent the message that leaders care about learning and growth. And thus inspired their teams to do the same.

Demand: Establishing clear expectations is vital to turn culture into something tangible. Modeling behavior is not enough. Leaders need to set clear expectations, so people understand what is okay and what it isn't – what you will reward and punish.

HubSpot punishes taking shortcuts to achieve short-term results. Conversely, it rewards simplicity, being a "culture-add" (someone who actively improves the company), work-life balance, and results delivered rather than hours worked.

Display: At the end of the day, your company culture results from everyone's behavior. How people display your culture matters more than what's written on a document. Employees' responsibilities lie not only in behaving according to the defined culture and expectations set up by leaders. They also need to inspire others and not give their colleagues a pass – team members must keep each other accountable.

The All Blacks, New Zealand's national rugby team, practice collective feedback. Rather than pointing fingers when things go wrong, players always go back to the question: "How can we play better as a team?" Every player reviews recorded practices and matches on their own. When the team gets back together everyone discusses how they improve their game as one instead of focusing on individual behaviors.

Here's a quick recap of the different roles and responsibilities per phase.

Leaders play a vital role in defining the culture they want for the organization. However, people's roles are almost as important. Smart leaders consult with their employees, asking for feedback and input along the culture design journey.

Involving people drives interest and excitement, avoiding cultural inertia and apathy. This keeps leaders on their toes, focusing on the real issues at hand rather than on the culture they think their company has. Most importantly, there's no need to get buy-in when people are part of the process – participation drives a strong sense of ownership.

In case you missed it, my new book "Remote, Not Distant" is already available. Scan the QR code or click on this link to get your copy:

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