How to Improve Corporate Culture

In a challenging economy, companies seek to increase productivity and reduce risks. Often overlooked is the opportunity to improve company culture.

Company culture–an organization’s attitudes, beliefs, actions and values–develops out of the actions and inactions of the company leaders. Culture can’t be changed by creating new policies, sending out memos or asking ground-level employees to change their actions or attitudes. When leaders adopt a clear behavioral leadership strategy, they can overcome workplace culture issues that don’t serve the goals of the organization.

Outcomes of Poor Company Culture
The personality, values and rules of behavior of an organization have a profound influence on its productivity and execution. Poor corporate culture may include: secretive, non-responsive or unethical management, rewarding of poor behavior, habitually ineffective communication, failure to address employees concerns and intimidation.

Poor corporate culture sets up a company for the following outcomes:

  • Risk exposure either from employee lawsuits or employee sabotage
  • Loss of productivity
  • Poor execution
  • High turnover
  • Low morale
  • Negative impact on reputation
  • Loss of profits

The challenge of overcoming cultural issues lies in informing and changing the behaviors and actions and workday responsibilities of leaders at all organizational levels.

Implementing a day-to-day behavioral leadership strategy shouldn’t be left to chance. Leadership is the first step to resolving workplace challenges.

Examples of Damaging Company Culture
Without direction, unchecked management behavior can become prevalent in the workplace. In compiling the results of a recent workplace survey, employees expressed frustration over managers and leaders who could not communicate accurately and professionally and who would not listen to them or address their basic concerns.

Survey participants noted the following as their basic workplace concerns:

  • Bullying is an ongoing problem.
  • Managers routinely make sexist comments and lie, and these same people get promoted.
  • Unaddressed complaints cause employees to resign without promise of gainful employment. They have to leave their job for “sanity” and to preserve their reputation.
  • Unethical behavior jeopardizes employee ability to execute and deliver service appropriately.
  • The manager is not approachable. Employees don’t have a comfort level with their manager to discuss an issue. Many times employees feel intimidated by their managers and will not say anything.
  • Managers fail to respond to employee issues, telling employees to “get over it” or asking them to not be a troublemaker.
  • In some fields (such as healthcare) a double standard exists for leaders (or physicians) versus the rank-and-file employees. Employees are held to higher standards, and poor behaviors are tolerated less from them than the leaders.

The responses in the survey are typical of many companies. If these behaviors go unchecked, serious and damaging workplace issues will result.

To address these workplace concerns, employers must establish a core leadership strategy that trains managers to adopt behaviors that encourage two-way communication on all issues and provides a foundation of consistently civil treatment. Organizations must clearly define what constitutes acceptable leadership behavior; then leaders must understand that such behavior is a non-negotiable requirement. In addition, organizations must take responsibility for holding leaders accountable for implementing these behavioral standards and managing in accordance with them.

When issues do arise, a consistent leadership strategy will assure they will be detected and corrected. Consistent behavioral standards must become the foundation for every policy, communication, management initiative and training session. The hallmarks of solid leadership of employees are prevention, detection and correction.

5 Positive Leadership Behaviors Defined
While many leaders intuitively adopt positive behaviors in the workplace, others need detailed instruction and practice to incorporate them into their daily leadership strategies. Here are key behaviors and how leaders should apply them:

  • Communicate honestly. Tough economic times require leaders to share the truth. This means not only telling the truth when questioned, but also sharing news, whenever possible, before it leaks through the viral grapevine in your organization. Leaders may not be in a position to reveal all plans and confidential business information, but they must never mislead or lie; whatever they say and write must be factual. Dishonest communications create a sense among employees that what employers say and do aren’t trustworthy; additionally, they can lead to perceptions of discrimination or other unlawful conduct. Credibility is crucial and can’t be manufactured. Leaders must build credibility over time in routine interactions crossing every issue.
  • Listen to concerns. Employees with questions need to know that their leaders are willing to take time to hear their concerns. Whatever those issues are, the manner in which one concern is handled–just one–will determine whether employees raise the next concern internally or through external sources. Hearing employees’ concerns allows leaders to find out about potentially problematic issues. They can then address the issues within the organization (rather than through expensive external avenues) before they become damaging or spiral out of control. What managers say and how they say it–body language and tone–are all vital indicators of their sincerity.
  • Address problems promptly. With all the uncertainty prevalent in today’s workplace, employees will likely have many concerns. They must know that their concerns will not only get attention, but also responses. It may not be what they want to hear, and it doesn’t mean that leaders will give out information the employer is unable to release. However, responses should fulfill these criteria: 1) Answer questions accurately. If you can’t divulge  information, honestly say that to employees. 2) Explanations must be timely. A tardy response is the same as no response. If you need time to investigate a situation, let employees know when you can provide the response and follow up accordingly.
  • Act professionally. These behaviors have no place in professional conduct:
    • Yelling
    • Offensive comments
    • Condescension in tone of voice, body language or written communications
  • Apologize readily. Like anyone else, leaders make mistakes and sometimes fail to act in alignment with leadership strategy. When they make mistakes, they should apologize and then change their behavior.Organizations that implement these behaviors as comprehensive cultural standards will prevent problems which otherwise might lead to significant damage. Conversely, organizations that launch a barrage of policies and systems without addressing the vital role that leadership behavior plays simply ignore what is essential to building a legal workplace.                                                                             Stephen M. Paskoff, is the founder and President of ELI, an Atlanta-based firm specializing in providing workplace learning solutions that focus on behaviors and outcomes to help organizations minimize risk and maximize productivity and business results. He’s the author of “Teaching Big Shots to Behave and Other Human Resource Challenges.”

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