There are 3.4 billion (yes, billion) search results when you google “company culture.” As a culture, it seems we are all obsessed with… well, culture. This makes sense when you consider that creating an effective organizational culture has become make-or-break for companies worldwide. Culture serves as a differentiator in attracting and retaining talent, providing a stellar customer experience and deriving value from mergers and acquisitions—it cannot be ignored or left to chance.
Clients often come to August Jackson asking for our point of view around organizational culture. More specifically, they ask us what they can do to “fix” or change their cultures. With an entire practice area devoted to Employee Engagement within August Jackson, we’re thrilled to help organizations find their silver bullet.
Culture: It’s More than Happy Hours and Ping Pong Tables
So, what is “organizational culture?” Society has tuckered itself out trying to define the elusive concept, realizing that (just like no two people are the same) no two organizations are the same. Moreover, culture can mean something completely different to two employees at the same company. It’s not “one size fits all,” so we need to find what size fits you, a process that begins with a bit of introspection. If you can understand your culture, you’re better positioned to influence it.
Ed Schein, one of the most prolific and well-known theorists of organizational culture, defines culture as an abstraction that can be seen through an organization’s behaviors, rituals and cultural norms. At AJ, we believe purpose is the foundation for any culture, which is why we begin any project with the exercise of defining your purpose. When rooted in purpose, culture gains structural stability, meaning it’s hard to change. It survives when individuals depart, and isn’t something that’s formed or changed overnight, mandated, or “fixed.”
Activating Culture with Stories, Symbols and Rituals
When we advise our clients around influencing culture, we suggest three primary mechanisms for doing so: stories, symbols and rituals that are rooted in your organizational purpose.
1. Stories are the narratives that are told within an organization. These narratives capture the essence of the culture. Stories could include your mission statement, your vision and a statement of your values. It could be articulating a smart Employer Value Proposition (EVP) or a formal philosophy. Stories might also be the “folklore” that are passed from person to person through onboarding. One of the most effective ways to influence culture is through the narratives told by leaders, which are especially effective when that leader is using their authentic voice archetype.
2. Symbols are the objects of meaning that inspire and bring people together under a common identity and purpose. Symbols could include rally cries, iconography and other visual and material artifacts. It is often seen in the way physical office space is configured. By applying smart design to the physical artifacts within your organization, you have the ability to influence culture in a way that reflects your purpose.
3. Rituals are the repetitive activities, processes, practices or actions that connect people. Rituals could include a myriad of processes, activities, touchpoints or people practices, like recruiting, onboarding, development and recognition. It can also include the way an organization celebrates important milestones. When you take a holistic look at your people practices, you’re able to understand whether they’re working in concert with, or against, your purpose to drive the culture you desire.
A strong example of an organization rooting their culture in purpose is our search engine of choice—Google. Google’s manifesto of Ten Things We Know To Be True is a set of shared beliefs and behaviors that have guided their people practices since the beginning, resulting in their much-lauded culture.
Will duplicating Google’s Ten Things work for your organization? Probably not. What you define as your purpose and how you activate through stories, symbols and rituals needs to be tailored and authentic to who you are. Defining your purpose could seem daunting, but we help our clients navigate these conversations with tools like our Purpose Platform and Employee Engagement Framework.
By defining your unique purpose, aligning your people practices to it, honing your narratives and creating distinguishing visual artifacts, you have the opportunity to influence your organizational culture in a way that’s just right for you. And that’s the silver bullet.
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