Dr. Tricia Groff, Ph.D., is an executive advisor and executive
During the Great Resignation, multiple employers shifted their emphasis from competing not only on salary but also on workplace happiness as a method for talent attraction and retention. This increased emphasis marks a departure from the years when words like “culture” and “morale” had no representation on growth roadmaps.
Organizations with multiple financial experts face the additional challenge of integrating analytical thought with emotional intelligence to maximize relationships. The skillset is exactly as squishy and non-defined as it sounds, causing many to seek the security of spreadsheets and numbers. Numbers are clean and easy, regardless of the story they tell. Humans, on the other hand, are nuanced, difficult to predict and require energy.
Because of the personal discomfort and emotional effort required to change culture, many organizations are half-hearted in their attempts or procrastinate on cultural problems until there is a crisis. The way to change the pattern is to assess the return on investment with positive cultures and the potential loss involved in negative ones. If the top leadership does not believe that culture is important and impacts the bottom line, they will not invest in it.
Mathematically, the rationale is clean and easy to add up. If there are excellent employees who are directly responsible for the generation of revenue or are part of a critical support chain, retaining them maximizes the return on investment (i.e., their salary). They combine their skillset and knowledge of the organization to continuously sharpen strategies and efficiencies that impact the bottom line. Conversely, turnover in these key roles results in the loss of accumulated knowledge and the loss of productive time in onboarding new people. In manufacturing terms, turnover disrupts the supply chain. Even if turnover is not an issue, negative cultures result in arguments and communication roadblocks that also decrease efficiency.
Hence, the first step to creating a positive culture is for leadership to buy into culture architecture as a strategy for revenue generation. Once they do, the next step is to delineate the key values they want to see reflected in the culture. For example, if an organization decides that a positive attitude and high work ethic are two key themes they want to see in the organization, they will develop systems that reward or punish accordingly. People will be promoted, reprimanded, hired, and fired accordingly. The highest-level leaders will continuously work to lead by example. For example, if an organization decides that they want to develop a culture of trust, the senior leaders will ruthlessly hold themselves accountable for providing direct and timely feedback rather than talking behind others’ backs. The only way a workforce will buy into a cultural paradigm is to see it reflected in those in power. Otherwise, the hypocrisy between the sign on the wall and a leader’s behavior generates scorn and obliterates the credibility of any cultural efforts.
It is impossible to create a positive and productive culture if the senior leaders are not modeling the attitudes and behaviors they want to see in the organization.
A practical element that builds positive cultures, regardless of specific values, is the understanding of different thought processes. An over-used but practical example is that the Head of People and the Chief Financial Officer may have very different ways of thinking about how to drive success. Often, people back away from thought processes and personalities they cannot understand. The discrepancies result in an overload of miscommunication and misunderstandings that occur in the trust gap of two people backing away from each other. Conversely, if the Head of People decides to take on the task of creating a spreadsheet or diagram to speak the language of the CFO or the CFO takes on the task of having a conversation about emotions instead of numbers, the two will be able to find common ground.
When I ask analytical people to give compliments, or non-analytical people to think about money, I often get fight or freeze responses. “I’m uncomfortable.” “I’d feel stupid.” Yet, the only way to bridge people and create cultures that unify teams is to have an umbrella culture in which “feeling stupid” is what people do to serve the larger purpose of creating alignment and trust among diverse personalities.
I recently had a situation in which someone on an executive team was repeatedly misunderstood. We held a meeting where I simply asked questions about his thought process and allowed the rest of the team to listen in, then ask questions. After the meeting, people approached him separately to ask questions and offer support. These conversations changed the assumptions and will lower future misunderstandings. To have that conversation though, the culture had to have a basic degree of safety so that the team member knew his disclosures wouldn’t be used to judge or criticize him.
So where does an organization start in creating a great culture? The senior leadership team can start with a conversation about what they want to see flow through the organization. They can then assess to see if they are modeling what they want to see reflected. From there, they can use feedback processes (questions in 1:1s, off-site conversations, cultural surveys) to assess if they are generating the culture they want.
Culture exists, whether leaders put time into it or not. It is simply the understood ways of communicating and behaving, the shared knowledge about what is rewarded and punished.
The cost of creating a positive culture is that those leading need to hold up mirrors to themselves daily, to see if their actions are matching their words. The reward is the potential to have a cohesive and high-functioning machine, in which human synergy and alignment propel the company forward.
Dr. Tricia Groff, Ph.D., is an executive advisor and executive coach who works with high achievers and their organizations. She is also a licensed psychologist who brings 20 years of behind-the-scenes conversations to her recommendations for workplace wellness and profitability. Dr. Groff is the author of Relational Genus: The High Achiever’s Guide to Soft-Skill Confidence in Leadership and Life.