Beyond Ping-Pong: Discover Your Organization’s Culture

by Michael Gugel, CPO @ GoCo
Company organizational culture employees team employwer

Organizational culture is generating a lot of buzz in today’s business circles. While pizza parties, ping-pong tables and liberal vacation policies make indelible impressions, an effective culture has much deeper roots. If you peel back the veneer of fun that often passes for culture, in businesses where this dynamic really matters, you’ll find a solid framework beneath the festivities tied to shared values, assumptions and beliefs. Let’s examine the basic elements to define your own culture and discover how some leading companies, like Johnson&Johnson, Southwest Airlines and REI, have leveraged theirs in the marketplace.

1. Assess

The first step is to identify, document, and assess an organization’s values and norms. What practices and rituals are currently taking place? For a small start-up company, this may take a few conversations. For a larger employer, the task is more complex, but the essence of the exercise is the same. Find out the practiced values and what employees perceive to be important.

2. Clarify and Document

To improve upon culture, first get clarity about the mission, vision and values. Often, management assumes that these concepts are understood. Yet as new employees come on board and turnover occurs, concepts mentioned during orientation become lost unless they are alive organizationally. It becomes critical to identify what is important (values) what we do (mission) and where we are going (vision). Once these tenets are in place, document and share them throughout the organization. You will see that communication is key to establishing culture. The first step is for everyone to comprehend and embrace these objectives.

Many organizations stop here. They consider this to have been a form of strategic planning, which is important. But, like management consultant and author Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Strategic planning is not enough. Taking this to the next level is what results in positive cultural change.

3. Align

Posting the mission, vision and values at the entrance to the building and on the About Us web page is not enough. To change the culture of a company, policies, procedures and practices must align. For instance, diversity is a value that has been long identified as good for business. What are organizations doing about it?

Diversity Unifies J&J: Johnson & Johnson calls diversity a “central part of the cultures across the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies.” The company states that diversity is not a program, but a core tenet to how it does business. Yet it goes much deeper. They offer an online learning platform called Diversity University. Formal and informal mentoring programs that aid in diversity efforts are available. Employee-driven groups provide opportunities for outreach, cultural awareness, career development and supplier diversity. J&J values diversity. They go out of their way in everything they do to ensure that candidates share those values.

4. Reinforce

New projects and initiatives can be fun to put in place. Often, it’s a good excuse for pomp and circumstance. The thing about culture change is that it has to sustain, or it’s doomed. Leaders have to recognize that changes take time and need reinforcement.

  • Emphasize the organization’s culture and values by talking about them. They should become ingrained in the language. Bring them up at meetings and discuss them at town hall gatherings. Employees must recognize this shift.
  • Celebrate when people take actions that are consistent with the company’s culture and values.
  • There are many opportunities at the individual level to reinforce a strong culture. Most notable are feedback sessions and performance evaluations. These are opportunities to reinforce positive cultural shifts in one-on- one settings.
  • Organizations need to be aware of what they are measuring. For example, if customer service is important, the performance review should reflect that. Measuring the number of customer contacts would be inconsistent.

Southwest Flies High: Southwest Airlines is a classic example of a company that goes out of its way to make customers feel special. In a 2013 interview, Southwest’s Ginger Hardage described the values that motivate their employees. As she put it, “A warrior spirit…being fearless in delivering a product.” Also, “a servant’s heart.” In other words, connecting with people and respecting their needs and concerns. And finally, “a fun-loving attitude.” People are proud to work there and don’t take themselves too seriously.

However, Southwest recruits people who are serious about customer service. They measure employees against those values. They recognize employees who have received praise from customers. Recognition is a big deal for Southwest. Employees receive honors at events. Their stories get shared in newsletters.  The CEO shares stories in videos played at staff meetings. When you’re surrounded by this type of culture, it is infectious.

YAY for REI: Let’s look at the outdoors retailer REI for another example. They have been on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list over 10 consecutive years. They were founded in the 1930s and still operate today as a member-owned cooperative. The company has a history of giving employees the tools to help customers and feel good about what they do.

Recently, REI implemented “YAY Days.” Each employee had access to an extra paid day off each year. The time off is designed to get outdoors, try a new activity or participate in environmental stewardship. Investing a day off in its employees, the company sees returns in different ways. They uphold their values. Employees are appreciative. Representatives are able to better assist customers interested in paddling, hiking or mountain biking. Not to mention all the social media posts made by REIers on their YAY Days. It’s no wonder that 75% of employees used their YAY Day the first year.

Every company culture is unique

Culture change doesn’t happen overnight. Sustaining a positive culture takes commitment. It is an aim that can yield significant benefits. Empowered employees that are measured against values operate on higher levels with greater motivation.

What works and moves the needle will be unique to each organization. Not every workplace needs the ubiquitous ping-pong table or happy hour. Culture is much more than that. The key to creating a valuable culture is to identify and align values around what is important.

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