Culture is all around us. It shapes how we see ourselves and guides our social interactions. Cultures contain collective attitudes of what groups perceive as good or bad, normal or abnormal, and inform behaviors.
Workplace cultures are no different. They embody an organization’s values and influence how things are done, how to get ahead, and what’s rewarded (or punished) in a workplace.
The importance of culture can’t be overstated. Yet few business leaders actually take concrete steps to create cultures that advance strategic business objectives. For example, a Deloitte study found that many leaders believe “culture is a potential competitive advantage,” but only 19 percent have the “right culture.”
Companies need a different approach. Instead of hoping for positive workplace cultures to happen organically, they must develop intentional workplace cultures around a company’s purpose and values that advance business objectives and support employee well-being.
Step One: Good Jobs
It starts with good jobs, which are central to intentional workplace cultures. Good jobs ensure that everyone, most notably lower-paid workers, feel they are treated fairly and belong to cultures they believe in.
What are good jobs? In her book, The Good Jobs Strategy, Professor Zeynep Ton asserts that good jobs have good pay, decent benefits, and stable work schedules where “companies design jobs so that their employees can perform well and find meaning and dignity in their work.”
“Bad” jobs, on the other hand, offer low pay, few if any benefits, no career path, chaotic work schedules, and micromanagement. Bad jobs lead to cultures characterized by cynical, disengaged employees and high turnover, poor customer service, negative morale and low productivity.
Ton profiled Costco and Trader Joe’s, two employers that pursue intentional cultures with “good jobs” at their core that help them dramatically outperform competitors due to higher employee engagement, better customer service, lower turnover and higher profits.
Costco and Trader Joe’s intentional cultures are beloved by employees and customers. And both companies consistently outrank their competitors in consumer satisfaction surveys, with over 80% of their employees recommending them as great places to work.
Step Two: Assess Existing Cultures
Creating intentional cultures requires a thorough workplace culture assessment. The goal is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of existing cultures and set the stage for creating intentional cultures that achieve strategic business outcomes
Review HR records, employee surveys and exit interviews. Note the positive and also complaints and criticisms about culture, managers and policies. Observe whether employees feel connected to the company culture, whether they feel supported in their jobs and see a career path at your company.
Conduct employee focus groups to measure perceptions about inclusion, fairness, engagement, loyalty, trust and job satisfaction. The ultimate goal is to achieve an honest, unvarnished view of what non-executive and non-managerial employees feel about the workplace environment and culture.
Interview key executives, including the CEO, on how they perceive their current cultures, both good and bad, and what needs to change.
Next, conduct a management culture assessment, such as the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) created by University of Michigan professors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn. Used by over 10,000 companies, it helps CEOs and C Suites measure and align their opinions about the current culture and guide the strategic development of a new, preferred culture.
By looking closely at company-wide attitudes and perceptions about existing workplace cultures, executives will be armed with data and insights to create intentional culture blueprints that will advance top level strategic objectives.
Step Three: Creating Preferred Cultures
Start planning the preferred culture by creating a Culture Team composed of management and lower-level workers from diverse backgrounds. This ensures the entire workplace population has input in developing an intentional culture that will support the company and employee well-being.
The Culture Team must revisit and revise or confirm the organization’s stated purpose and develop a purpose statement that says “why” the company exists (beyond making a profit). Purpose statements must articulate the underlying ethos of a culture in ways that inspire and engage employees and customers.
For example, Patagonia intentionally combines its purpose (“to save our home planet.”) with a proven commitment to employee well-being that undergirds its entire culture and inspires its employees to bring their best selves to work.
The company offers a comprehensive list of employee well-being programs and benefits, including subsidized childcare, generous leave policies and good healthcare coverage and encourages and provides substantial paid time off for employees to engage in environmental volunteerism.
The results? Incredibly high engagement and astronomically low turnover, fierce customer loyalty, and a great corporate brand and reputation.
Guided by the purpose statement, the Culture Team must identify gaps between existing and preferred cultures and document the required behavioral, personnel and operational steps required to develop and guide the new intentional culture.
Intentional cultures require consistent, self-perpetuating employee behaviors to manifest their stated purpose. Culture Teams must identify, document and operationalize those precise employee behaviors if the hope to make their intentional cultures alive and lasting.
David Friedman’s book Culture by Design provides a model for embedding desired employee behaviors to operationalize intentional cultures. Friedman shows how to “ritualize” desired behaviors through repetition in memos, meetings, announcements, that make behaviors instinctive for all employees.
Preferred cultures require constant maintenance to stay fresh and relevant. Companies must ensure their purpose and values, once embedded in their intentional cultures, guide how they hire, onboard and train new employees, and how companies reward employees and hold them accountable.
Step Four: CEO Leadership
CEOs must forcefully and personally lead intentional cultures. And C Suites must model and encourage desired behaviors, reference preferred cultural values and behaviors as part of all corporate communications, and ensure that managers support intentional cultures and hold employees accountable.
Step Five: Cultures of Employee Well-being
Employee well-being must serve as a touchstone that guides intentional cultures. Without employee well-being at their core, intentional cultures ring hollow. They never achieve the required buy-in to galvanize entire workforces to pull in the same direction because they feel part of something.
Why is employee well-being so essential in intentional cultures? Because, by definition, workplace cultures are composed of everyone. They only take flight as enablers of strategic business outcomes when they are adopted, lived and believed in by everyone, from CEOs down to front-line employees.
Intentional cultures enable employees to bring their best selves to work. This requires, by definition, that employers invest in employees’ whole person well-being as the price of admission for garnering high employee engagement which is central to all effective intentional cultures.
Studies by Gallup and Deloitte prove the causal link between high employee well-being and higher engagement, and abundant evidence shows that when companies prioritize employees’ physical, mental and financial well-being, it leads to higher engagement, lower turnover, lower absenteeism, better customer service and higher product quality.
Fostering high employee well-being is how companies develop reputations as great places to work. And at least three peer-reviewed studies show a direct correlation between high employee well-being and share value/profit.
Jim Purcell is former CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of RI and Co-Founder of Returns On Wellbeing Institute, LLC. We help employers design workplace wellbeing programs that generate measurable ROI through better employee engagement and productivity, and lower turnover and healthcare costs.Steven Van Yoder, a cofounder at Returns On Wellbeing Institute, provided editorial support to this article.