It may be our time to consider a culture evolution ...

customer experience cx employee experience organizational culture Aug 16, 2022

If you are financially inclined and possibly emotionally uncomfortable and cynical, improve your culture because I believe the economic benefits are enormous.

If you are emotional, naive and believe in unicorns and magical goodness in this world, upgrade your culture because it will make people happier and fill their lives with meaning. And the money will roll in!

What do I mean when I say upgrade your culture?

I mean to the next version, the better version, the kinder and more impactful version.

The version of your company that will

  • Give employees tasks that make them proud.
  • Give employees a purpose so they can feel they make a difference.
  • Grow people, so they are better tomorrow than they were today.
  • Create a team (or tribe) so people feel they belong.
  • Pay them for their time and passion so they can have a meaningful life and feel that giving you their time is worthwhile.
  • Allow them to practice a craft that has value.

Often what I see in some companies is that they

  • Measure people on productivity and compliance with the process. If they don't perform, punish them, blame and shame them.
  • The purpose of many companies is to make money. Therefore their people are measured on financial targets, which drives short-term behaviour that includes: 
  • Selling as many products to as many people, irrespective of the fit for the customer. 
  • Getting clients off the phone as quickly as possible. Shortening calls by transferring or escalating. 
  • Many companies do not prioritise learning because it costs money and time, and they might be scared that people will hit a glass ceiling.
  • Many companies introduce competition and comparison in their teams to achieve targets, motivate people and boost performance. All of these attempts fail in the end.
  • Others say, let's pay people just under the benchmark, so they don't leave. We hold them captive with long-term incentives that sound prestigious but translate into less than what they would have earned being paid a fair market-related salary.

Stupid targets + lack of growth - pride - self-confidence - fair salary = uninspiring work environment of emotionally disconnected people who perform but lack passion and pleasure in their work.

When companies consult with me and say they need help with their culture, they have a "culture problem", I know they don't have a culture problem. Culture is where they see symptoms; it is not THE problem. Usually, pervasive fear and anxiety, lack of discipline, lack of skills and being stuck in old habits are the underlying germs that create an infected workplace.

To understand the problems better, we need to pray to the symptomatic parts of the organisation and find answers to these questions:

What are people afraid of?

What are the situations that create conflict?

What are the actions and behaviour that create irritation?

What are some of the patterns and habits that are not ok but that have just become the way people do things?

What are essential aspects of work life that keep on being de-prioritised?

What is Culture?

It is not a poster, campaign, or engagement activation tactic.

I believe that culture is a practice.  

Culture is what we do. It is how we show up. 

It is the role we play in our workplace. Culture is also the skill we practice to thrive together as a team and as individuals. 

Our culture is evident in our rituals and our way of doing things.

Culture exists whether you have deliberately designed it or not. Usually, companies with un-architected cultures, mixed with a dose of uncertainty, fear, managers who lack skills and an absence of leaders with purpose, will result in what many call a “toxic" culture.

Culture often is a person's interpretation of who you want them to be at the workplace. Culture reflects the light or the darkness that bounces off people in a work environment. It is the great and the sh!tty attitudes people bring to work all mixed.

Clues to your culture

We immerse ourselves in looking for cultural clues when we work with a brand. We are paid to show them their Brand's best and worst.

What your toilet tells me about your culture

This piece of research started as a bit of a joke, but then it got serious.

Whenever I go and see a new client, I go to the washroom before the meeting starts. I would usually study the instructions and signage on the walls of the washroom and look at the design, tone of voice and calls to action. Eventually, I started seeing patterns. What I found in the washroom would be identical to what I found in the boardroom. The culture oozed out in the passive-aggressive instructions. The passive voice that threatens me when I break the rules. The angry calls to action and detailed instructions governing my washroom activities sounded like they were sneaking into my key performance indicators. Let's just say the washrooms in certain companies scared me and did not make me feel safe.

One washroom had signs above the toilets that said, "If at first, you don't succeed, flush, flush and flush again". It was meant to inspire ownership through humour in a drought-stricken part of the country. The message told me about the ignorance and disconnection between what was said and what was lived. It also spoke about the what instead of the why. Throughout this company, I found groups that were not aligned. Teams were competing in the most unhealthy manner, almost cannibalising each other's clients. Leaders were in their ivory towers, looking down at the workers.

I would also look at the state of the washroom, is it maintained and cared for? Are the basics taken care of? The state of the bathroom is an excellent indicator of accountability, ownership and general care of people. If a company is not taking pride in the state of their washrooms, they are not nurturing pride in their people. And the aggressive, scary posters that aim to command and control bathroom activities do not succeed in fixing this.

Then we get to the legislated protective gear in the toilets that have a role in preventing HIV. They play an essential role, but the choice of flavours and presentation make me wonder. The lubricant in small sachets made available in large quantities confused me. I am not sure why lubricant is provided rather than condoms. When I asked employees about this, I received verbal and visual answers that I cannot repeat in this article. I would need an age restriction. The lubricant on its own sends a message of office promiscuity, but in combination with condoms, it has a more vital health and safety message. I assume the week that I spent there, the condoms ran out.

I use this story in jest, but I do believe the clues of language, manners, disciplines, and patterns provide us with evidence of an otherwise intangible cultural DNA that impacts people in the workplace.

I want to share with you what we are looking for when evaluating culture:

Your Brand's website:

  • Are the images authentic or stock images
  • The tone of voice in the content. Is it aligned with your brand promise?
  • How easy is it to understand what you do? Is the promise inspiring?
  • How much effort do you shift to me, your customer?
  • Does your website sound like a person or a system?
  • If I google you, what do I find?

Your physical presence:

  • Is it clean?
  • What impact does it have on my senses?
  • What does the people's appearance tell me about your Brand?
  • Do your people interact with me?
  • Are they spatially aware, or do they ignore me?

Your Offices:

  • The security sign-in and experience. What does it say to the person visiting?
  • The reception experience. What does it say about your Brand?
  • Do you know me?
  • How many times do you ask me to sign in?
  • Where do I wait?

Your Meetings:

  • What do the meeting invitations look like?
  • Do people greet each other?
  • What is the condition of their meeting rooms?
  • Does your audio-visual equipment work?
  • Are your whiteboard pens functional?
  • In online meetings, are your cameras switched on?
  • Do people come late? How do they enter, and what do they say?
  • Do people engage with their devices in meetings?
  • How engaged are people in the discussions?
  • Do they achieve their objectives?
  • How much airtime do they afford each other?
  • How do they close a meeting?
  • What do meeting minutes look like? What is the tone of voice?

There are many more clues depending on the space. Medical spaces are different from fashion retail spaces. Each of them has clues that create an unconscious or conscious impression and ultimately impact how people feel about themselves at work. The stories they build up about themselves are substantiated and reinforced by how leaders and co-workers treat them. Some examples that people have shared with us is "People don't like me because they never invite me to the canteen with them." The feeling they carry is that they feel excluded and inferior. 

What it takes to craft a great culture

For an organisation to have a great culture is similar to committing to a fitness regime. There is no such thing as fitness without exercising. It is not always pleasant; you don't always feel like working out, but you know the benefits and the impact of not working out, so you prioritise and commit.

The daily practices that result in a healthy culture are

  • Focus on purpose 
  • Clarity about what the values are
  • Open, transparent and regular communication
  • Listening
  • Kind but direct feedback
  • Holding each other accountable
  • Ideation - wanting to be better and wiser in each new moment

A dedicated focus on continuously developing skills to improve our interaction between employees and customers is essential.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Group practice their culture and skills in their daily meetings that they call a line-up. The line-ups help them align, focus and contract responsibilities within their team unit. 

The magic happens when culture becomes integrated into systems, processes and experience design becomes second nature. 

Culture is NOT the responsibility of HR. It is no longer the "soft" stuff that gets bumped off the executive agenda. 

When the Brand's secret sauce is poured into every step of the job, it is ritualised through patterns that initially took an effort to prioritise. 

Sometimes it even requires us to push a reset button and unlearn habits that are not conducive to the culture.

Defining your culture

Culture is intertwined with organisational purpose and cannot exist or be articulated in isolation from purpose.

You already have a culture in your organisation unless you are starting a brand new company or Brand. Your first challenge is to identify the current ingredients in your culture and to separate them into what needs to "stay" and what needs to "stop". The "stops" are usually the things that break down your ideal desired culture and what create an unsafe environment. 

Here are some examples:

  • Over-commitment
  • Blaming others
  • Being fake nice, not having the courage to speak up
  • Not taking responsibility
  • Absence of boundaries - taking advantage of team members
  • Lack of feedback
  • Over focus on productivity and never celebrate pride in a job well done
  • Focussing only on addressing things that go wrong
  • Talking behind one back
  • Lack of transparency in decisions
  • Using being overworked as a status symbol 

These aspects above will lead to a disengaged team that will display the symptoms below:

  • Doing just enough to not get in trouble
  • Feeling trapped and staying stuck
  • Generally unhappy workplace
  • Absenteeism
  • Attrition
  • Low recommendation of the Brand as an ideal workplace

Defining culture is hard. We like to guide brands to find their essence, their real purpose. Find your reason for existence.

Their marketing message often expresses the "what", not the "why". The next step is to compare your essence to your competitor's essence and see if it stands out and will inspire their people. The biggest reason for having the essence is to guide a team on what experience they need to deliver. It creates boundaries and safety and is a guide to measuring experiences. Without this, "good service" will be interpreted differently depending on a person's background and experience.

Defining is not prescribing. 

Defining gives shape to the intangible and gives an outline, like a picture in an adult colouring book but not prescriptive about the colours used. Suppose we are all colouring in the same picture, creating an experience with the same outlines. In that case, it will be consistent. By giving people the creative freedom to pour their personality into the experiences, we are letting authenticity flourish instead of automating and robotising our experiences.

What we do can be defined in our steps and standard operating procedures. 

How we do, it can be guided, modelled, and role-played but held loosely within the Brand's character while allowing creative, authentic personalisation.

The "why" we do it is the mantra, the creed, the motto. The mantra is what I would want a person to have on the tip of their tongue for most of their working day. And when they say it, they should feel proud about their contribution to that!

For the Ritz-Carlton, it is "we are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen".

Culture is as much about learning as it is about unlearning. Some patterns that do not positively contribute to individuals and teams thriving need to be eradicated through unlearning and replacing.

Example of the congested meeting schedule:

We were working with a brand where they constantly started meetings late—coming late for meetings needed to be replaced by coming 5 minutes early for a meeting. For that to happen, back-to-back meetings had to be stopped. By instituting 45-minute meetings, we changed the pattern of constantly waiting outside meeting rooms waiting for people to finish and people constantly arriving late from the previous meeting that overran. Some of the disciplines that we needed to put in place:

  • They placed a timer in every meeting room. 
  • The meeting chair would ensure that they start on time and set the timer for 40 minutes to have a 5-minute wrap-up at the end of the meeting.
  • The meeting chair would book a meeting room.
  • In the invitation, they would clearly state the expectations of running on time (since they essentially reduced the meeting time by 25%)
  • The chair of the meeting gave meetings more structure.
  • A discussion round allowed for everyone to voice their opinion.
  • The chair distributed minutes of agreed actions after the meeting.
  • These agreed meeting rules have now become their way of doing and being.

Workshops and longer meetings are an exception but are necessary.

The power of Real-Time Design™

No matter how much you train, prepare and ritualise your culture and corporate purpose, there is the aspect of improvising when a situation calls for it. We call this stage play "Real Time Design™", Where an employee has been trained in the skill of anticipating, problem-solving and designing a new experience on-the-fly as the customer is engaging with them. We have been training Real Time Design™ to customer service professionals for years. The Ritz-Carlton practices this in their line-up, taking a specific situation and generating as many possible solutions to that scenario in their line-up meeting. This practice helps their staff grow problem-solving skills so that when they are faced with a unique situation that they have not encountered before, they can, with confidence and courage, deliver a "new" experience on-the-fly.

During the last few days, I have witnessed culture in many forms, every interaction with an airline, hotel, Brand that I purchased from and then the ones I visited to immerse myself in their culture. Zappos and The Ritz-Carlton were top of my list.

As a Culture activator and engineer working with brands to design their Brand Aura and activate it, here are my secrets to a thriving culture upgrade.

  1. It starts with leaders having a conviction and devoting them to the culture upgrade. They view culture as their duty. They dedicate time to cultural discussions and co-creation.
  2. Upgrading your culture demands a value-driven redesign of your organisation. If you are unwilling to turn every stone, stop here and abandon your culture upgrade.
  3. Your ideal culture MUST be co-created by employees. Without that, exit here since you will not have the buy-in and possibly abandon really great ingredients of your already present culture.
  4. Upgrading your culture requires effort, commitment, discipline, and daily cultural practices. Most importantly, it will also demand a focus on unlearning old patterns and ways of doing and being.
  5. Your brand aura must be articulated and vocalised in a way that inspires change. Brand Aura is the atmosphere, character and emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of your Brand. 
  6. Unless every decision in your company is informed and driven by your values, your culture upgrade will fail.
  7. Recruit for culture, nurture and protect your culture through the constant engagement of your people in the values through practices and rituals.
  8. Studying the exemplary "cultural thriving" brands, I found that employee expectations are contracted through processes and role clarity. The brand aura emanates from the actions and behaviour of employees. Cultural osmosis has infused the aura into every standard operating procedure. Employees are, however, given freedom and creative empowerment to LIVE the Brand.
  9. Leaders LEAD from this values-based foundation. They see the culture as their duty and devotion. As culture evangelists and custodians, they inspire this devotion in every employee so that everyone sees it as their job.
  10. Culture is not a project or a campaign, or an initiative. Your initial culture upgrade might take on the form of a structured initiative. But once the new ideal culture change has been activated, culture needs to be grown and constantly nurtured, as we do with our products and business strategy. An annual culture review with your strategy processes would ensure that your culture remains relevant and healthy and continues to be integrated into everything you do.

In Summary

To summarise the steps in moving closer to your desired culture:

  1. Prioritise and decide that culture is your differentiator
  2. Define it
  3. Design the culture
  4. Activate it
  5. Deliver it in daily rituals and practices
  6. Celebrate it
  7. Grow and nurture and diagnose threats to your culture through feedback, empathetic listening and interpretation of customer and employee insights

If you are leading a culture upgrade in your organisation, understand that this change is filled with effort, hardship, and incredible rewards. Not everyone will be on-board, and you will lose people in resetting your culture switch. It is like DNA editing, where you are running an initiative to identify the healthy DNA and extract the DNA that is not beneficial to your future customer and employee experience. 

Culture is your only differentiator. It is your organisational fingerprint that no one can copy—craft something magnificent for employees and customers.

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