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Feed Your Culture Now, Not Later

Small — and most mid-sized businesses — do not have the luxury of large HR departments. There aren’t throngs of trained professionals who specialize in contemporary performance management programs, the latest and greatest benefits packages, or even the art of employee communications. While essential functions such as payroll are in place, the more strategic — and equally important — initiatives such as forging an “employer of choice” organizational culture lack similar rigor.


Who should own culture in a small to mid-sized company? Fundamentally based on values —whether stated or unstated — the mission is usually set forth by the CEO. When it comes to driving the organizational culture, the job falls on the shoulders of every senior leader in the company. And, as we all know, these managers are already stretched beyond capacity on their best days; even more during the crisis created by COVID-19.

Yet, there has never been a time in recent history where establishing and sustaining an authentic culture was more important. The level of disruption created by social unrest in response to racial injustices and the threats of a tainted election, when coupled with a global pandemic that has impacted every aspect of how employers and employees interact on a daily basis, begs the question: When was the last time you checked your company’s culture?

Defining Your Culture

Whether intentionally defined or organically developed, culture is what gives the business a distinct personality. Having a mission statement and stated values are foundational; by recognizing the need to create an identity and norms that guide the workforce to enhance the culture.

Founder-led startups tend to be more disciplined about this work. More traditional companies have established cultures, however, it’s based on long-standing behaviors versus conscientious efforts to define the culture of the business. Both can work if leadership supports the identity of the business with actions and words. But it’s the actions that matter most.

There is an age-old debate about the relationship between culture and employee engagement. The way employees become more engaged is because of the degree to which they relate to the culture; it gives them a sense of belonging, worth and value. You can have engaged employees even if you lack a well-defined culture, but if the culture is toxic, engagement suffers.

At the basic level, culture is all about the things you do. For example, if offering paid time off to vote very naturally aligns with your values as a leader, it will most definitely enhance the culture of the organization. And action always speaks louder than words. The CEO must take the lead and everything that follows with respect to culture is directly impacted by his or her actions.  CEOs that don’t come to work every day with an awareness of how behavior impacts culture are going to be less effective at challenging and motivating employees to deliver their best work.  Toxic behaviors that are not quickly and firmly addressed by the CEO will negatively impact culture in material ways.

Culture requires care and feeding by every leader each and every day.

Why Now Is So Critical

The list of what’s keeping employees up at night is profound. Financial pressures due to lost income. Homeschooling requirements balanced with a full-time job. Loss of collaboration, connectedness and community. Anxiety and isolation related to the risk of infection. Personal stress is off the charts.

During these times, organizations need to understand and appreciate how much the culture is the foundation to which employees are looking for support. When leadership fails to acknowledge, understand and (most importantly, within reason) support those changing dynamics, there will be risks. Examples include higher turnover (plenty of companies are hiring from their competition during the pandemic), increased absenteeism, and lower productivity. The first two are easily measured. The third can be a silent killer for a small to mid-sized company.

Every manager must live the company’s values each and every day. It is never explicitly about discussing the values, it’s about demonstrating and modeling behaviors that are aligned with those values and coaching employees when their own behavior is in or out of alignment. During COVID-19, empathy has become key. Being more aware of what is going on in people’s lives means managers need to be thoughtful in providing extra positive feedback. When employees hear that their managers understand and appreciate the challenges the pandemic is throwing their way, it’s easier to deal with complex business problems. Simply stated, it is critical to have a culture of caring.

Caring doesn’t always mean you can solve the problem — sometimes employees simply need to feel heard or have their feelings validated. In some situations, especially in 2020, consider breaking the rules on occasion; something small, while not ‘policy’ could make an enormous short-term difference in an employee’s life when they need it the most.

How Do You Measure It?

Companies with a strong culture that engages employees consistently outperform others with less engaged employees. Using consistent, simple and straightforward engagement surveys, you can measure and score how employees see the effectiveness of the company’s culture. This will provide the directional evidence that the efforts underway to create a well-operating culture will have a positive versus negative impact on business outcomes.

Keep it simple and consistent. A set of 10 or fewer questions to measure engagement is all you need combined with providing an opportunity for comment and feedback. Resist temptation to change those questions from period to period.  The power comes in measuring how sentiment is changing over time, not changing your mind about what gets measured.

There are other aspects of culture to be considered and measured. When employees feel supported and see a culture that lives and breathes every day, it creates a degree of safety, especially during a pandemic. Over time, it is a safe bet to assume turnover will be lower, and at a minimum, productivity losses attributed to the pandemic can be minimized.

It will always be easy to defend why leaders don’t have time for these kinds of activities, but it is more important than ever as we are separated by distance, fearful for our health and well-being and challenged by the everyday activities in our personal and professional lives.

Make the time for the care and feeding of your culture and values — it will pay dividends.

About the Author

Larry Dunivan is the CEO of Namely, an HR software company.

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