Is your workplace frustrating and lifeless, or is it engaging and inspiring? When you think of your work environment, what comes to mind? For many people, descriptors such as “dreary,” “discouraging,” “fear based,” and “broken promises” apply to their organization’s culture.
The problem according to Chris Edmonds, author of The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace, is that most leaders put greater thought into their organization’s products and services than they do its culture.
But as Edmonds points out, “Culture is the engine—it drives everything that happens in an organization each day. Leaders don’t want a dreary or frustrating organizational culture, but most don’t know what to do about it. They’ve seen inspiring workplaces but have never been taught how to create or maintain one.”
In working with teams, departments, divisions, and organizations for more than twenty-five years, Edmonds has focused his culture-change approach on three key activities: Define, Align, and Refine. By focusing in these areas, Edmonds has helped senior leaders clarify their organizational purpose, values, strategies, and goals, and along the way taught leaders throughout the entire organization how to build engaging, inspiring workplaces.
Defining Your Purpose, Values, Strategies, and Goals
According to Edmonds, a strong culture begins with strong language, including formal, liberating rules for citizenship, values, and teamwork. One tool that Edmonds recommends is the creation of an organizational constitution that describes exactly how its members will engage with each other, suppliers, vendors, and customers, as members act to fulfill their organization’s purpose, values, strategies, and goals.
An organizational constitution outlines your team’s purpose, values, strategies, and goals. It paints a vivid picture of success, values, and behaviors. It maps out how to work from that picture each day. An organizational constitution gives employees’ jobs and roles meaning and clarity. The organizational constitution eliminates unspoken assumptions.
As Edmonds explains, “There is no more confusion about what the ‘integrity’ value really means or why a decision was made (or not). Through their organizational constitution, leaders make expectations explicit and describe what a good job and a good citizen look like in specific, tangible, observable terms.”
Align Leader Behaviors First, Then Align Everyone’s Behaviors
Once your organizational constitution is written and shared, leaders need to live by it, lead by it, and manage to it.
In some ways you are formalizing rules about being nice. And while people might laugh, this second step helps you get more intentional about the way you want people treating each other. And that is critically important when you are asking people to hold themselves to a higher standard. Anytime you change the rules, people are going to want to see if the leaders are living and embodying the values. As a leader you’re going to be put under great scrutiny. So the first thing is to take a look at yourself and what the values are that guide you. Get clear on what you are trying to do as a leader.
Edmonds recommends that leaders start the process by slowing down, stopping, and taking some time to think about who they are and what their guiding principles are. “If you are going to create an organization built on mutual trust, respect, and dignity, you have to be an absolute model of it yourself. And that can take a little time,” Edmonds explains.
Refine and Adjust as Necessary
It’s also important to remember that culture is not a one-and-done type of initiative. Culture is constantly evolving based on the actions and experiences occurring throughout the organization on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. Without constant attention and tending, it is possible for even the best companies to lose some of the magic that made them special in the first place.
Edmonds points to Starbucks and its founder Howard Schultz as a case of a good company and a good CEO stepping in and taking proactive steps when they notice things slipping.
In 2008, when Howard Schultz stepped back into an active management role with Starbucks, a lot of customers—and certainly a lot of analysts—would have told you that the company had lost its way and needed to begin an immediate cost-cutting program to get the company back on track. But that wasn’t Schultz’s plan. Instead he decided to refocus on the company’s values and culture. As he shared in numerous articles written during the turnaround, he started by refocusing on what had been lost and making a promise to get back to who they were.
As Schultz explained in a Harvard Business Review article at the time, “I shut our stores for three and a half hours of retraining. People said, “How much is that going to cost?” I had shareholders calling me and saying, “Are you out of your mind?” I said, “I’m doing the right thing. We are retraining our people because we have forgotten what we stand for, and that is the pursuit of an unequivocal, absolute commitment to quality.”
Edmonds says that Schultz “stopped the Starbucks world” and did a reset, a return to the beliefs and values that made your local Starbucks a friendly, inviting place. It’s counterintuitive for leaders to reduce their focus on processes and results and to increase their focus on workplace inspiration. When they do, Edmonds says, “They unleash discretionary energy among employees. They’re the ones who create great coffee for engaged customers daily!”
Don’t Leave Culture to Chance
Edmonds always finds it interesting when people look at companies like Starbucks or Zappos and think they were just started that way and it was a weird kind of lucky business.
In Edmonds’ experience the best companies get really clear on the performance they want. And then they get really clear on the citizenship values and behaviors that they want—and they measure and monitor both extensively.
“Culture drives everything that happens in your organization, good or bad,” says Edmonds. “If you leave it to chance, you’re leaving all kinds of stuff to chance. And I don’t think organizations want to do that. If we think about our great bosses, the people that inspired us, pushed us, it was about trust and respect first. Once you do that people will sign up and do things and give you effort that you never would’ve imagined when you hired them. That’s when you create a culture that works.”