4 Steps to Cure an Unhealthy Company Culture

dreamstime_2610692_230by Dr. Linda Sharkey
Global Managing Partner and
Director Talent and Leadership Practice

When you get sick, you go to a doctor. When your company gets sick, it’s hard to know where to turn, and a bad culture is not a minor cold — it’s a chronic disease.

An unhealthy culture causes a lot of problems, and it’s not enjoyable for anyone involved. If you’ve been working at a company with a bad culture for any amount of time, you know what I mean. If it’s time for a change, there’s a trustworthy, systematic way to make it happen.

Making Sure You Need a Change

We don’t take on a cultural transformation unless there is a need to do so: We need to integrate another business, or we see clearly destructive behaviors that get in the way of business results.  A bad culture can hurt business, both in the short term and in the long run. You want a positive environment that makes employees want to work hard to advance the company.

Passing blame and finger-pointing are sure signs of a low-accountability culture. If you’re seeing people who are unwilling to collaborate with each other or who isolate themselves — disregarding what’s going on in the rest of the enterprise — you have a problem.

Abusive and aggressive behavior in leaders is a bad sign as well. Many executives constantly criticize subordinates in the belief that they are helping them improve. However, this makes subordinates spend too much time reworking proposals and trying to please their superiors, taking the focus off more important goals, like innovating and driving customer loyalty.

In addition to these behaviors, there are organizational signs of trouble, such as high turnover, low employee engagement scores, and absentee issues. If things are really bad, you may even see unethical behavior in the name of driving results. If you have people on any level who believe in the success of the business at any cost, you need a serious change.

Curing an unhealthy company culture is not easy, but there are four action steps that are crucial to starting the process.

1. Define the culture you need for success.

Look at where you want to be in the marketplace, and figure out what kind of culture you need to be successful. Once you are clear on your market strategy and desired outcomes, work with leaders to define the culture required for success. Be sure to build a consensus around the desired culture. This is easier than you might think when you use a systematic approach to define your future culture with your leaders.

This step also involves determining the leadership behaviors necessary to support your future strategic goals. Leadership behaviors drive the culture, so every leader needs to understand what behaviors are expected of them to create a culture for optimal performance as a company.

2.  Define your current culture — thoroughly diagnose it.

This is a critical step in validating and clarifying the current culture — and the problematic behavior you’re seeing. Before you can figure out what needs to change, you have to understand where you are now. First, get the facts on how your employees see the culture, in addition to how you or your leaders see it.

The best way to do this is through concrete data. Use valid and reliable surveys to quantify the facts about the culture. This data makes your information measurable, easier to act on, and easier to communicate. You can engage the leaders in discussions, using the same valid and reliable data, to agree on areas and methods for change to concretely move the organization toward the desired culture.

3. Engage your workforce.

This does not mean giving inspirational speeches to your employees and hoping they respond well. It means engaging them in the conversation. Use a systematic, planned method of sharing survey results with them to begin a conversation about solutions.

Gaining insight from the workforce on how to close gaps moves dialogue from griping and complaining to actionable suggestions that include things they can do to close the gaps. It gives staff ownership of the problems, as well as the solutions, and makes them feel valued. You also might hear some fantastic ideas throughout the process.

4. Form a plan of action and follow it.

After you clarify the culture you need for success and understand what needs to change in your current culture, make a concrete plan with milestones and measures. Most importantly, follow it!

Each business unit (office, region, or department) must formulate its own plan, report its progress, and communicate actions regularly, or this will become another project du jour. Have structured dialogues with each unit about specific actions they can take that will help bridge the gaps. Follow up regularly on the plan’s progress, and discuss any issues with individual leaders.

A great way to make sure you follow up with action items is to make it a part of regular business reviews. Add a component on leaders’ behavior progress and cultural transformation plans. You should report results the way you would report financial results.

Many companies don’t deal with issues that seem harder to quantify, but they can have huge impacts on results. If you’ve seen more negativity in your organization and you’re ready to improve your business, this process may be just what the doctor ordered.

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