3 Ways to Jump-Start a Struggling Corporate Culture

Corporate culture is incredibly important, yet it means a lot more than ping pong in the break room and fresh doughnuts. With unemployment in the U.S. at a seven-year low, companies are being forced by the tight job market to keep up with each other in terms of perks and compensation. This means that culture is now the competitive differentiator when it comes to finding and keeping good people.

Given that a new year is a time of reflection and resolutions for a better future, now is a good time for HR leaders to think about how to improve your company culture. Whether you’ve found yourself in a sticky situation or have seen your organization’s ethos erode through M&A or other events, as one of the stewards of corporate culture this is your chance to be recognized as a strategic player in your company’s success story.

You can’t fix corporate culture with a nice mission statement on the wall; culture is how your management treats employees, how employees treat each other, and how everyone at your company treats customers. It’s a reflection of the day-to-day experience everyone has at and with your company, and has a big impact on business outcomes. With that in mind, here are three common cultural scenarios and strategies for what to do about them.

Situation: Employees feel they don’t have a voice.

People talk. If they aren’t able to talk to management in an open and honest way, they’ll talk to each other. In situations like this, workplace gossip is rampant, employees are afraid to speak up during meetings, and many people are unhappy. An environment that stifles communication cannot sustain innovation or creativity.

What to do about it: Establish trust, then talk.

Start by emphasizing transparent and genuine communication. Let employees know what’s happening within the organization, hitting hard issues head on. Don’t sugar-coat the facts—employees need to know their management is being straight with them.

Internal collaboration platforms and forums are a good place to start conversations, as well as all-hands meetings and email. In an especially troubled workplace, encouraging feedback on the company’s most stubborn issues and having executives address this feedback openly and honestly is a great way to prove that transparency is more than a buzzword.

Encourage and prepare for honest feedback. Acknowledge any discontent and assure employees that management is working to come up with solutions. Most importantly, follow through with this assurance and prepare to make some changes.

Rethinking your culture strategy isn’t easy, but it’s necessary in order to retain talent and develop or even regain the positive workplace you want.

Situation: Organizational identity crisis.

Without a solid understanding of who you are and what you stand for as a company, it’s impossible to set expectations for workplace behavior. When no one knows where the line sits, nobody knows when they’ve crossed it. This can lead to disrespect among peers; competition, politics, and backstabbing among teams; and unscrupulous sales tactics.

What to do about it: Establish your values, and then prove them through actions.

If you don’t already have them, sit down and really think about what you want your employees to strive for each day, and then document, communicate, and live by those values. If you do have core values written down somewhere but feel they’re largely ignored, meet with your executive leadership and create a plan to communicate your values in a more effective way.

I’ve found storytelling to be a good communication tool. Just repeating a value like “the customer comes before all else” only goes so far. Instead, tell a story about an employee going the extra mile for a customer, or jumping in to help a co-worker push a project over the finish line, or giving back in the community. This also has the benefit of recognizing standout employees, and proves to the whole company that great values lead to great results.

Situation: You have a retention problem.

When employees imagine their future, your company isn’t in it. Motivation and performance are stunted when managers are passive-aggressive towards employees, leave them out of important projects without explanation, or fail to include them on correspondence. Or, more benignly, when good employees receive praise but no change to their job title and no clear path to future growth inside the company, they may “vote with their feet” and take advantage of a great job market.

What to do about it: Focus on building meaningful relationships.

Personal relationships are absolutely necessary to strengthen trust between managers and employees and build employees’ confidence to perform well. It’s also important to talk about career goals, and make employee development a priority, not an afterthought.

Consider encouraging managers to spend a certain amount of time with their employees in one-on-ones. When managers and employees share their thoughts and feelings, a lot of problems get ironed out. Work goals become clearer and any performance issues get addressed.

As with many facets of corporate culture, it’s imperative that C-level executives set the tone, and make it clear by their words and actions that employee development is a business imperative. This sets the bar for managers throughout the company, and lets them know they need to prioritize time for relationship building with the people they manage.

Now, be confident in your ability to influence change.

Rethinking your culture strategy isn’t easy, but it’s necessary in order to retain talent and develop or even regain the positive workplace you want. Better communications, strong core values, and leaders who are committed to employee growth and empowerment will help steer the ship back on course.