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

Company culture 101

While the term culture might be easy to define in pleasing words, it can be much harder to grab hold of in daily business. Company culture can fall into the 'nice to have' space, but then be ignored or forgotten when everyone is flat-tack or times get tough.

But culture is definitely a 'thing' and all companies have one. It exists whether you like it or not and shouldn't be neglected, especially during testing times.

A strong company culture is a driving force and underpins a successful, resilient team.

So what can you do? Buy a pinball machine for your people, install a slide between floors, and give everybody unlimited leave? How about starting by paying people correctly and treating them with respect?

We've put together a list of top tips on how New Zealand businesses can develop and manage good company culture.

1. Get the basics right

This is not the exciting side of people management, but do not underestimate the importance of setting a firm base for the employment relationship by sorting out the basics.

Make sure new people get essential paperwork before their first day of work, like employment agreements and company policies. Be ready for them when they arrive; meet them and make them feel welcome.

Deliver a well-planned onboarding programme and establish objectives and key performance indicators at the start of the performance period not 6 months later because you wanted to give the person time to find their feet or 'somebody' is waiting for 'somebody else' to sign them off.

This is about the process, organisation, and meeting your legal obligations. Some of it may seem administrative and boring but is critical to developing and maintaining credibility, which becomes the foundation of everything that follows. Discipline and good systems make it work.

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, and seek to understand. Treat people fairly.

Even in tough situations, with potential dismissal outcomes, little is gained by behaving like the company is an army and you're a military interrogator.

3. Listen

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

4. Have a clear strategy & align 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 culture, for example, whether you seek aggressive growth or market consolidation or innovation.

A clear strategy then informs the design of your organisation, which then informs all other people decisions. You can hire people who will help deliver it and support the company culture. Team members will know where the company is going and how their efforts contribute. Management and leaders can be genuine, not fake.

In a strong and positive culture, everyone knows what to expect and what is expected.

5. Manage problems swiftly

Allowing behaviour that is inconsistent with the company's values or at odds with the workplace culture is incredibly damaging, no matter how functionally proficient a person may be.

There is no excuse for bad behaviour. Deal with issues quickly and ethically. Remember the focus is on the wider team, not just the badly-behaved employee who needs performance management or disciplinary action.

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.

Learn more about managing employee issues.

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 turbulence. This doesn’t always happen naturally and can require the support of good leaders.

Stick to your principles and maintain standards. It can be easy to let standards slip or look for shortcuts to get out of a tough situation, but this can leave people feeling shortchanged or isolated, and make problems worse.

7. Expect your people to succeed

Some business leaders have a mindset that the employee needs to prove themselves worthy of the job they have been given (many leaders might not even acknowledge or recognise that they see it this way). 

What does this mindset say about your decision to hire the person?

Instead, 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, you can revert to point #5 and manage any problems before they get bigger.

Learn more about creating a high-performance environment.

8. Be safe

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

Nothing supports a good company culture like a true sense of safety, and the experience of COVID-19 has proved that when employees feel safe and supported by their employer, they are far more engaged and loyal.

9. Be genuine

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

If you say one thing and do another, no amount of expensive espresso machines and team bonding sessions will work; they will be seen as a thin veneer over a shaky foundation. There is no credibility if it is not genuine, and those baubles will be perceived as an attempt to hide real problems.

10. Seek to influence culture not own it

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

Culture is organic, built by a team, and influenced by many things, never just the HR or management function.

Not everybody will necessarily like your company culture, but it is worth holding onto if it is not toxic, unethical or damaging.

Accept that some people will choose to opt-out; if the culture is strong, this is a good thing for everybody.

Don't confuse strong culture with uniformity. Diversity in all its expressions is an essential aspect of a thriving, supportive company culture, and it's a cornerstone of any innovative business.

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