Company culture may be having a moment, but that doesn’t make running culture change initiatives any easier. It doesn’t make them more successful either.
In the not so distant past, programs, initiatives, and any other work around company culture used to be readily dismissed as “soft.” It was thought of as stuff that makes people feel good about their jobs, but nothing that a high-ranking leader–or anyone else in control of the company coffers–could connect back to the bottom line. HR practitioners have known that’s not true for some time, and now leaders are beginning to see the connections too.
Even with the strategic merit of building a corporate culture in focus, the stakes are still high for culture champions to “get it right” the first time. Any initial failure in the eyes of a skeptic is proof, after all, that investing time and effort in culture change initiatives isn’t worth it. And there are many ways a culture program can capsize. Sometimes failure comes from well-intentioned people making earnest mistakes. Other times it snowballs from mismanagement into something bigger, and more toxic.
In 2016, Wells Fargo made national headlines for bank account fraud. At the center of the controversy was a mismanaged incentive program. Guided by a cultural philosophy articulated by the organization’s CEO himself–“Eight is great”–the program dictated employees to sell eight Wells Fargo products to each customer. Overwhelmed by these unrealistic benchmarks as well as unreasonable demands from their immediate supervisors, employees were pressured into creating millions of unauthorized deposit accounts and credit card applications. In the right hands, an incentive and recognition program can be a powerful culture initiative for motivating and empowering employees. For all the reasons above, and many more not listed here, this was not one of those cases.
That may be a worst case scenario (and national scandal) but to bring things a little closer to home, even developing and sharing statements for company core values has the potential to go awry. I was once part of a core value development process where the first round of value definitions made no mention of employees as something the company championed or prioritized. When project champions were notified that employees might not respond well to this omission, they responded that employees’ contributions to the company were to be “assumed.” Fast forward to the rollout in town hall sessions: they were not assumed. In fact, it was one of the very first things employees asked about.
I’m thankful that the group I was a part of went back to the drawing board and drafted new statements that made the value of employee contributions explicitly clear. But my experiences then, and since, have informed some rules to live by for working on company culture change initiatives.
5 Don’ts of Culture Change Initiatives
Don’t make assumptions. It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked at the company five months or five years. Sometimes you don’t always know what’s best. Before embarking on a new initiative, it’s important to get a pulse from employees via your preferred feedback method. Not only does employee feedback give you a sense of what employees are looking for in their work experience, it can also give you a sense of timing of how and when to best roll out your new initiative.
Don’t be prescriptive about one specific outcome. It can be tempting to think that with solid preparation and deployment that your new culture initiative will solve all your problems. The reality is culture programs can go over any number of ways with your employees. Sometimes you might fall short of your goals, other times you might exceed them. But don’t set yourself up for disappointment ahead of time when your new recognition program doesn’t boost productivity by exactly 25% like you’d hoped.
Don’t forget to set expectation ahead of time. There is plenty of room for safe error when you’re building a culture initiative, but you need to manage those expectations with leaders. Not everything is going to go as planned, and that is perfectly fine so long as you help the powers that be understand this is part of the process. If, for example, employees aren’t running fun runs right after you introduce a new wellness initiative, take the opportunity to step back and assess your approach. Every initiative will go through necessary growing pains as you determine what’s right for your culture. Missteps and even failures are a part of that process.
Don’t exclude employees from the process. The surest way to ensure buy-in for company culture is to bring employees in from the beginning. In my experience, employees don’t respond well to having culture prescribed to them. They want to be its co-creators. That means not only listening to what they have to say, but letting them be the ones to help implement and champion the culture changes they want to see. If everyone is supposed to have a stake in the company’s success, then it’s only right to spread those feelings of ownership.
Don’t break the law. This might seem obvious but let Wells Fargo be a reference point as to how legal systems can coerce illegal behaviors. While the incentive program itself may not have explicitly encouraged illegal activity, the way the initiative was administered pressured employees to engage in questionable and illegal actions.
5 Dos of Company Culture Change Initiatives
Do your research. Before introducing new culture ideas, make sure you evaluate any pain points and risk to the company, and start thinking out realistic steps for implementation. This isn’t the old days of parchment and messages-delivered-by-raven. No HR business partner needs to be in the dark when it comes to drafting a plan for a culture initiative. There are plenty of resources and success stories on the internet for whatever it is you’re planning.
Do be proactive. Every culture initiative needs champions to ensure success. If your philosophy for culture work is to “set it and forget it,” forget it employees shall. Co-creation from employees helps increase culture buy-in and feelings of ownership, but when it comes to success and failure the buck still stops at HR. As stewards of company culture, HR has a responsibility to take the culture ideas they introduce over the finish line and champion participation throughout the company.
Do be self-aware. Trust your instincts if you ever detect you’re inadvertently going down the wrong path. There’s no shame in admitting a program isn’t working out the way you intended. Especially if the opposite means jeopardizing employee well-being or putting the company at risk.
Do stay transparent. When a culture initiative doesn’t work out, people will want to know why. Trust matters in times of failure, even when it may seem like just a small mishap. People both above and below you will appreciate and respect openness and truthfulness. You don’t have to be overly conciliatory–a simple “here’s what we expected, here’s why it didn’t work out, and here’s what we learned from this experience” will suffice.
Do celebrate your successes. But stay even-headed about it! After all that planning and preparation, it can be exciting to see employees really take to something like a recurring charity drive or a cross-departmental competition. But getting it right one time doesn’t mean you’ll get it right every time. Take pleasure in knowing you did your job well, but make sure you apply the same degree of forethought and consideration to your future culture programs.