Not long ago my consulting firm conducted a strategic assessment for a medical testing company with about 500 employees. As part of our data gathering process we interviewed members of both the executive leadership team as well as the frontline employee population. In these interviews we asked them to describe their corporate culture. Both groups used a similar term: “family culture.” However, when we asked each population to explain what they meant by “family culture” the similarities ceased. How the employee population interpreted a “family culture” was a far cry from how the leadership intended the culture to be understood and internalized. For example, to the leadership, “family culture” meant that they take care of each other; while to some employees it meant that only family members got promoted to leadership positions.
There were many reasons for the disparity revealed in the assessment. A key contributor to this delta was the role that internal communication plays in establishing, transmitting, and sustaining an organizational culture.
At its core, culture is how we get things done. It establishes the normative rules by which behaviors and attitudes are evaluated as “good,” “bad,” “right,” and “wrong.” Culture is created and proliferated through behavioral interactions such as modeling, observation, imitation, instruction, correction, negotiation, story-telling, gossip, reward, coercion, and so forth. These behavioral interactions are all forms of communication.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of communication in culture. In his 1959 book The Silent Language the cultural anthropologist Hall said that “Culture is communication and communication is culture.” Pacanowsky and O’Donnell-Trujillo called culture “the residue of the communication process.” While “residue” may not be an overly-attractive term, the sentiment holds water. Spradley said that culture is “learned, revised, maintained, and defined in the context of people interacting.”
When people interact messages are exchanged; exchanged in the written and spoken word, in pitch, tone, posture, gestures, even in appearance, the brandishing of symbols, and furnishings. Whether consciously or otherwise, through communications we establish the rules of the road in how we interact and get things done.
So what does all of this mean for companies? It means that without intentional alignment the culture that is officially espoused by the leadership and in policy can be eclipsed by the culture that is continually reinforced in the day-to-day, moment-by-moment interactions between employees and their environment. We see this as employees interact, share thoughts, and tell stories that reinforced the collective clan norms over the bureaucratic norms written in mission statements and posted on the wall.
You see this sort of behavior every day. For example, the official speed limit posted on the freeway may be 65 mph, but the collective behavior of the group says something different. (Next time you’re on the freeway try getting in the left-hand lane and driving 65 mph and just see what kind of communications come your way.)
So if the interpersonal communications between employees has such a significant effect on the culture, what can a company’s leadership do to create, sustain, and proliferate a thriving corporate culture? Much of it comes down to your approach to internal communications. For instance, in their 2012 book Talk, Inc. Groysberg and Slind assert that today internal communication is less about tops-down command and control and more about bottoms-up and horizontal collaboration. Employees are no longer a captive audience to be dictated to, they say, but rather a constituency to be included in the discussion. In fact, I would go one step further and say that when it comes to culture the discussion is not happening at the leadership level but at the employee level. If leaders want to influence cultural norms they need to be a part of the employee discussion. Furthermore, this isn’t a discussion that leaders can simply insert themselves into; they need to be invited in by the employees. And the cost of a ticket to that discussion, Groysberg and Slind say, is trust, authenticity, and intimacy.
If employees don’t trust their leadership then any communication that comes from the top is greeted with cynicism. To earn trust leaders must be generous with their own trust—share more of themselves, corporate information, insights, and strategy than they might otherwise. Simply put, to be trusted, you must first trust. Furthermore, this trust needs to be authentic, which means that it must include a certain level of vulnerability. In her 2012 book Daring Greatly Brené Brown talks about the role of vulnerability in developing authentic relationships. This means letting go of things like perfectionism, an overly-controlled sense of self-image, and the need for certainty. It means being authentic and treating others in an authentic fashion.
There are things that leaders can do today to begin building this authentic relationship with employees and become part of the culture discussion. For example, leaders should place the task of listening to employees on equal footing with talking to employees. (See our blog post on effective listening.) Leaders should balance their time and attention between what Groysberg and Slind call “big ‘C’ Communications” such as newsletters, intranet portals, emails, etc., and “little ‘c’ communications” like regular town hall events, lunches, team meetings, and other more intimate forums. These “little ‘c’” communication channels offer an additional level of authenticity and vulnerability between leaders and employees.
Today a strong and thriving corporate culture is a competitive necessity. According to Richard Barrett and Associates, in the Industrial Age it was skilled labor that differentiated companies from their competition. In the Information Age it was intellectual capital. Today we’re living in the Consciousness Age where cultural capital separates the winners from the losers. As Jim Sinegal, co-founder and former CEO of Costco said, “Culture is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing.” Companies that want to drive forward need to understand from where their culture emanates and become a part of the process.
So who are the culture drivers of your organization, and would their views of your corporate culture align with those of your executive leadership? Penny for your thoughts.
Barrett, R. (2009). Sectors: Corporations. Retrieved from http://www.valuescentre.com/sectors/?sec=corporations
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly. New York, NY: Gotham Books.
Groysberg, B., & Slind, M. (2012). Talk, Inc. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Hall, E. T. (1959). The Silent Language. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Inside the Box: What’s the secret to Costco’s success? (April, 2012). NBC News.
Pacanowsky, M. E., & O’Donnell-Trujillo, N. (1982). Communication and organizational cultures. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 46, 16.
Schall, M. S. (1983). A communication-rules approach to organizational culture. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28(4), 557-581.
Spradley, J. P. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.