Creating Culture Starts with Asking Questions

Workplace Culture

Workplace culture develops in many different ways and unfortunately, once it is in place it can be incredibly difficult to change. I used to help manage a tire shop where employees were allowed to say whatever they wanted to each other as long as they were appropriate or away from customers. It started out with a lot of friendly banter and then eventually the conversations  evolved and became degrading. It was still all in good fun but employees took liberties that they would not have in most other work environments.

Complaints started coming in from customers saying the vulgar language was offensive and not suitable for children. The challenge for us as managers came when we realized that we had allowed the bad language and distasteful humor for so long, that changing it felt impossible.

We had daily meetings about it as an entire crew every morning before we opened, but it didn’t help. So we started targeting the problem as we noticed it, and throughout each day, we stopped it and encouraged better behavior when we could. Combating the issue when we recognized  it slowly helped make a shift.

If you do what is possible every day you will eventually find yourself doing the impossible.

Culture can simply happen or it can be cultivated and shaped.

If you leave a child out in the snow alone, they are guaranteed to find something to do. Maybe that will be a snowball fight with the neighbors, or maybe it will be building a snowman or a fort. The one thing we know is that a child is unlikely to sit in the snow alone and do nothing.

If we take a moment to encourage that child to build something specific, we can still allow them the freedom to do it in their own way, but we can have an impact on whether their creation is destructive or beautiful.

Most of the time, people of all ages will allow their ideas and ethics to be shaped by outside influences rather than by original thought.

Created culture will be a reflection of the leadership.

In a start-up, for example, the culture will be a reflection of the founder. The founder can choose to lay out ground rules that either allow or disallow employees to take part in certain activities. One can choose to allow employees to gossip about each other which will create a backstabbing culture where employees compete to elevate themselves, or you can have a zero-tolerance gossip policy which helps encourage camaraderie and peer support for the dream and vision of the company.

Culture is also created by observation.

This is by far the craftiest way culture can happen. Humans often learn the fastest through unconscious learning. When we are babies we listen to our parents and hear the words they say on a regular basis. Our first words are often the words we heard the most.

We learn and adapt culture in much the same way. Even if our company clearly outlines consequences for being tardy, if our manager, employer, or leader is often late to work, the rest of our team will inevitably follow suit.

If the CEO shows up in sweatpants, he will likely portray to his employees that he doesn’t take his work seriously. In turn, they will learn to be less serious as well. For some businesses, a CEO in sweatpants could be the best thing for productivity and morale. In others, a swift drop in productivity is likely.

Actions will always speak louder than words, and a negatively observed culture can unravel the  foundation for productive, life-giving culture.

In my opinion, the best way to create culture is to make it individual.

It is really important to know where you are going if you want to lead people. If your employees are going to buy into your culture and vision you should be able to answer the question, How are we going to change the world?

There is nothing more personal for a company to create than the meaning for one’s life and work.

Life and work, in that order.

Our American culture has to start looking at humans as humans; not cogs in a wheel. Our humanity is what makes us special. We should not live to work, we should be working to live. Businesses have the opportunity to shape that principle.

Our humanity is what makes our companies unique.

When employees know they are valued, their work ethic and productivity increases drastically. Don’t look for the next great perk, look for the best way to serve your employees.

The only way to really identify with the humanity of your company is to ask questions. Do yourself a favor and never make assumptions about your culture. Ask questions and create a culture of sharing and nurturing ideas. The most valuable thing you have in your company are your people.

I LOVE hearing success stories. If you have seen a culture shift in your company, tell me about it at ryan@storyon.co and on Twitter.

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