10 ways to develop and maintain a strong company culture

Jason Ennor, Co-founder and CEO at MyHR
by, Jason Ennor, Co-founder and CEO at MyHR

While the term culture might be easy to define in nice words, it can be much harder to grab hold of in daily business. It can fall into the space of “fluffy HR” and can be easily ignored or forgotten when times get tough.

But culture is definitely a “thing” and all organisations have one. It exists whether you like it or not and cannot be ignored, especially during those tough times.

What can you do? Buy a pin-ball machine, install a slide, give everybody unlimited leave? How about starting by paying people correctly and treating them with respect?

Here are our tips on how to develop and manage a good company culture.

1. Get the basics right

This is the foundation of the employment relationship. It is administrative and boring, but is critical to developing and maintaining credibility, which becomes the foundation of everything that follows.

Get employment agreements to new people before their first day, meet them when they arrive and deliver an organised onboarding program. Make them feel welcome.

Establish KPI’s at the start of the performance period not 6 months late because “somebody” is waiting for “somebody else” to “sign them off”.

This is about process, organisation and paperwork. Discipline and good systems make it work. This is not the exciting side of HR, but do not underestimate the importance of these basics.

2. Be human

The employment relationship is a human relationship, once the compliance work is complete try not to manage every situation like you’re in a courtroom drama, even if an employee tries to.

Talk to people like people, seek to understand.

Even in tough situations, with potential dismissal outcomes, little is gained by behaving like military interrogator.

3. Listen

When a problem or complaint is raised, don’t become defensive, listen to what is being said and even if the complaint is incorrect or ill-informed, try to understand where it has come from so you can avoid this happening again.

4. Have a clear strategy & align behaviours expectations to this

Knowing where you want to go will help you understand what you need to do. When a business strategy is clear, it will shape a culture, for example; aggressive growth vs. market consolidation vs. innovation.

When it is clear, you can be true to yourself, leaders are genuine, not fake. You can hire people who will deliver this strategy and therefore more likely support the company culture.

A clear strategy can inform all decisions, which in-turn helps a strong and positive culture develop.

5. Manage problems swiftly

Allowing behaviour that is inconsistent with the company values or at odds with the culture is incredibly damaging, no matter how functionally proficient a person may be. There is no excuse for bad behaviour (as Uber recently found out).

Deal with issues quickly and ethically, remember the focus is on those left behind, not the badly-behaved employee you’re exiting. This can be hard to get your head around when somebody is otherwise good at their job, but it is essential to maintaining a strong culture.

6. Be consistent and stay true

When times get tough and the pressure is on a good culture should rise and help carry the company through the tough times, this doesn’t always happen naturally and can require the support of good leaders.

It can be easy to let standards slip or look for shortcuts to get out of a situation, this will isolate people and make problems worse. Maintaining standards and principles will have the opposite effect.

7. Expect your people to succeed

This is the counter to a mind-set many leaders do not even acknowledge (or know) they have which is the mind-set that the employee needs to prove themselves worthy of the job they have been given.

What does this mind-set say about your decision to hire them?

The direct opposite should apply, think like: “I have no doubt you will do well in all aspects of this job, just let me know what you need from me to make it happen, I’m here to support you, train you, develop you.”

Foster an attitude of trust and support, indicative of a high-performance team, not an attitude of distrust and political point scoring.

Then only if somebody doesn’t perform, revert to point 5 above.

8. Be genuine

Nobody likes a fake. Genuineness in culture comes when the behaviours and standards are truly lived.

If the basics are not no amount of pinball machines and slides will work, they are seen as a thin veneer over a shaky foundation. There is no credibility, it is not genuine and the baubles are perceived as an attempt to hide real problems.

9. Be safe

Safety is a fundamental part of any strong culture. Safety to take risks, safety to speak out, safety in support of new ideas, emotional safety, physical safety, safety to be different. Even safety when being managed out of the company.

Nothing supports a good culture like a true sense of safety.

10. Seek to influence culture not own it

Culture cannot be owned by any department or an appointed individual. Culture is influenced by leaders, by squeaky wheels, by innovators, by accepted and tolerated behaviours, by unspoken responses, by hiring decisions, by promotion decisions and much more.

Culture is organic and influenced by many things, never just the HR function.

A strong culture is a driving force and underpins a successful team. Not everybody will necessarily like your company culture, but provided it is not toxic, unethical or damaging it is worth holding onto.

This may promote self-selection and some people will opt-out but where the culture is strong this is a good thing for everybody.

Don’t confuse this with uniformity though. It would be a grave mistake to suggest that diversity is not an aspect of a strong culture. Diversity is essential, diversity will thrive in a strong company culture and the value of diversity will be recognised.

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