Once we were obsessed with changing the culture at our companies. We wanted to be more transparent, more customer-focused, less siloed, more innovative, more collaborative, less petty, and so on. Culture change was our ticket to greatness, and we all jumped on the bandwagon.
Now that culture has been in the spotlight for a while, many companies think they’ve nailed it. They haul all new employees into a room, sit them in front of a screen, and hand them over to a corporate trainer.
So far so good. I’m not against formally introducing employees to the company—if for no other reason than to welcome them and make them feel special. However, if you want to throw culture training into the mix, be mindful of how it lands with your people.
Because your employees are fully grown adults with ideas of their own, there’s a chance they will reject your indoctrination. If this happens in large enough numbers, you will create a counterculture undermining your message instead of strengthening and unifying your company. Some contrarian behavior is unavoidable and necessary in any healthy organization, but what you don’t want is to give your employees an inadvertent cue to disconnect.
Here are five common culture-training mistakes and what you could do instead.
1. Don’t make it all about yourself
Some companies forget this simple rule of good manners and drone on about how great they are. A friend recently sat through a corporate culture training, during which his trainer kept telling stories from her life and laughing at her own jokes. My friend left the training amused but unsure of what the company stood for. On the one hand, the trainer was preaching employee empowerment and customer focus; on the other, both the company and the trainer behaved narcissistically.
Culture training is not the best place for cognitive dissonance. As much as you can, show—don’t tell them—what you care about and why your employees should too. Instead of hogging the spotlight, let them talk. Ask them why they chose to work for the company and what they hope to achieve in their careers. If the employees came in as a result of an acquisition, ask them about their old practices and what they would like to change or what kind of company they would feel proud to work for.
2. Don’t pretend that culture is exactly what management wants
Management plays a big role in modeling the values and behaviors they believe in. It’s good leadership and a critical piece of unifying the company and moving it forward. However, the real culture is not what the leaders model; it’s what employees do. In a healthy organization, management and employees influence each other, communication flows both ways, and the leaders use it to reality-check their message and their delivery.
It could be tempting to sweep the real culture under the rug, especially if you don’t check in regularly with your employees. Give in to the temptation, and it will show up in your training. One company put an infographic in its training manual showing culture cascading top-down from management to employees. It’s wishful thinking.
Instead of quoting your leaders ad nauseam, use examples of spontaneous behavior from your rank and file. The more your stories resemble everyday life at your company, the more they will resonate with the new employees.
3. Don’t self-aggrandize at someone else’s expense
We all want our employees to take pride in the company and to believe it’s a notch above the competition. Sometimes we take it so far that we trash others in order to make ourselves look good. For example, one company attempted to demonstrate its superior values by pointing out that other well-known firms had none. Do you think the employees bought that story? And what if they did?
You’re not doing yourself any favors by teaching your employees to snub their noses at the competition. If you have to set other companies as examples, find something you admire about them. Overconfidence has hurt many a market leader. To stay competitive, teach your employees to respect and learn from other companies, as well as from their own.
4. Don’t promote conflicting values
You define your company’s culture by the values you never mention—as much as by those you uphold. You can’t be all things to all people at all times. By choosing one set of values, you’re taking the complementary set off the table. Otherwise, your values are meaningless and your training will confuse the employees.
One company emphasized consensus throughout its culture training. The training manual also mentioned initiative and continuous improvement as guiding values. If you worked there, would you feel like speaking out against inefficiencies—or would you wait until everyone shared your opinion?
Choosing a guiding value is never about taking a one-sided view. No company or individual can succeed without balancing both sides. You obliviously need both consensus and individual initiative at your company. Which value wins will depend on the situation. In a simple case, your common sense should tell you what to do. But in a difficult case with strong arguments on both sides, you need a tiebreaker. That’s what guiding values are for. You say: “I hate to stir the pot, but because we’re a company that rewards initiative, I will step forward and make my case.”
5. Don’t write an all-encompassing mission statement
Vapid mission statements are probably the most common mistake companies make when talking about culture. Does your mission statement contain words like “all stakeholders,” “industry leader,” “provide value,” and “the very best?” If so, your company might be guilty of it, too. If you use your mission statement to rally employees to your cause, I suggest rewriting it in a way that points in a specific direction. (Check Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Chapter 21, Go on a Mission for inspiring examples.)
Great companies distinguish themselves with a strong corporate culture, but they don’t get there just by sitting around talking about values. If you want your new employees to get how great you are, do something they will remember and appreciate. Do this often and empower them to treat customers and each other in the same way. That’s how real culture works.
If you’d like to improve the culture at your company, you might like my book, because it picks up where you leave off.