giving feedback
PHOTO: Alan Levine on Flickr via a CC BY 2.0 license

A toxic work culture can disrupt business, resulting in low engagement, high turnover and ultimately damage your company’s reputation. 

However, by influencing culture and internalizing new norms, companies have a chance to bounce back. Even if a company is not suffering from the effects of a negative culture, creating a strong purpose and values from the beginning helps institutionalize the right kinds of behaviors.

Map Your Company’s Culture

As researchers Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi highlighted in Harvard Business Review, identifying with the values, goals and purpose of your job is one of the three key factors that motivate employees at work. 

Therefore, mapping out a clear and inspiring purpose and set of values should be your first priority.

Your company’s vision and mission statements are important for mapping out where you want your company to be in the future and what you want to achieve. Unlike these elements, a company’s purpose describes the value your company seeks to contribute to society, beyond financial and personal goals. 

Teachers typically don’t choose their profession for the great pay and amazing benefits. It’s the opportunity to open up students’ minds to new ideas and influence the next generation that motivates them each day. As such, your company’s purpose should connect your employees’ work to how it impacts your customers' daily lives, creating an emotional rather than financial incentive to the job.

For example, Southwest Airlines’ vision is “To become the World's Most Loved, Most Flown, and Most Profitable Airline” but its purpose is to “Connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, low-cost air travel.”

The Difference Between Purpose and Values

Purpose and values are two different but intertwined concepts. Values provide guidance on the way you’d like your goals to be achieved. In an article in Harvard Business Review, managing director of Strategic Factors, Graham Kenny, describes values as the “behavioral compass” of your company.

Some of Southwest Airlines core values include demonstrating proactive customer service and having fun. They reinforce these values by recognizing employees for going above and beyond to help a customer in their Spirit magazine and encouraging staff to get creative with their daily tasks (a YouTube video of a flight attendant rapping safety instructions went viral). 

As a result, the airline has reached a 20-year customer satisfaction high and is recognized as one of the best places to work by Glassdoor, Indeed and Fortune.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul. 

Sometimes changing just one practice can have a major impact. In his book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business," Charles Duhigg explains how Alcoa’s new CEO boosted innovation and output by making worker safety a top company value. Eliminating accidents on the job not only decreased hospital leave, but also increased employee trust. 

By encouraging communication across hierarchies about ways to improve worker safety, people were also encouraged to communicate other ideas they had on technical improvements to upper management. This increase in upward communication generated profitable new ideas. When the CEO retired, Alcoa’s annual net income was five times higher and it was considered one of the safest places to work.

Create New Norms

Once you have a purpose and list of values it’s time to start institutionalizing them into your company. 

For values to truly be adopted and internalized a simple top down process isn’t enough. A study by Meliorate found that 70 percent of all change initiatives fail. It attributed 33 percent of this to management behavior that does not support the change, 39 percent to employee resistance to change and 28 percent to budget and other obstacles. 

To complete an effective culture change a socialization process needs to occur during which values are transformed into norms that guide behavior in your company.

In their seminal paper, International Norm Dynamics and Political Change, Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink describe three stages to norm evolution: emergence, cascades and internalization. 

Though their paper is focused on how norms are developed in society, it is also highly relevant to the creation of norms at the organizational level. The steps of the norm life cycle are as follows:

Norm Emergence

  • During this stage communication is key. Your company’s norm entrepreneur (or the figure leading this change) should begin by calling attention to the issue you want to change by using the appropriate language and interpretation, known as a process called ‘framing’
  • Norm entrepreneurs must start off by convincing leaders to embrace the new norm. These norm leaders will play a critical role in communicating your vision and then acting as ambassadors for change within your organization
  • Stage one and two are divided by a tipping point in which a critical mass of people begin to adopt the new norm

Norm Cascades

  • After the tipping point comes a process during which international socialization occurs to induce norm breakers to become norm followers
  • At this stage emulation, praise for norm supporting behavior and publicizing negative behavior is important to support the socialization of new norm(s)
  • A major factor that pressures actors to adhere to new norms is their identity as a member of society. “State identity fundamentally shapes state behavior and identity is, and that state identity is, in turn, shaped by the cultural-institutional context within which states act.”
  • In the company context, if enough employees adopt a new norm it can redefine the behaviors that are appropriate for that particular identity. At that point, the legitimacy of those who fail to adopt the new norm is called into question

Norm Internalization

  • At this stage norms are almost taken for granted and become second nature

Avoid the Negative Impact of Bad Management

To put the norm life cycle into context, a study of nearly 20,000 employees conducted by Harvard Business Review and Tony Schwartz found that 54 percent felt they’re not regularly respected by their leaders. When asked to respond to this claim, 25 percent of these leaders explained they were simply following the example of other leaders in the company.

To avoid the negative impact of bad management, Google's Project Oxygen set out to identify the qualities that make a good manager. It found that the best managers were good coaches, empowered their team and expressed interest in their employees’ well-being. 

These qualities were then institutionalized into the system by creating feedback surveys and management training centered around these skills. Thus they evolved into norms that came to define what it means to be a good manager at Google. As a result, Google has retained the No. 1 spot in Fortune’s "100 Best Companies to Work For" list for six years in a row.

Reinforce Your Company’s Culture with Feedback

Factors such as new hires, growth and acquisitions will continue to impact your company culture. 

Though giving more autonomy to your workers is a good thing, spreading out responsibilities and different layers of management makes it easier for new practices to grow that may go against your vision. It’s therefore essential that you continue to reinforce and institutionalize your values throughout all aspects of your people management strategy.

Promote and recognize behaviors that align with your new company culture. The 2015 Employee Recognition Report by Globoforce and SHRM found 88 percent of HR leaders saw company values-based recognition helped reinforce common values, resulting in 90 percent employee engagement and 68 percent employee retention. 

The report also revealed that 32 percent of employees feel that celebrating milestones with peers is emotionally impactful. WorldatWork found that 94 percent of companies that have peer recognition programs incorporated into their company culture see a positive effect both on employee motivation and engagement.

Behaviors that undermine the focus and values you’ve created can also be remedied with continuous feedback and coaching. This is especially important during the onboarding process and after training sessions to reinforce new skills.

McGregor and Doshi’s study into employee motivation identified play, purpose and potential as top motivating factors. Employees want the opportunity to grow and develop. Developing their skills with values based feedback will ensure they grow with, not away from the company, generating an engaged and culturally minded workforce.

At Impraise we’ve seen that customers facing rapid growth, structural change and internationalization increase their chances of success by giving values-based feedback. Using the feedback customization option, companies are encouraging leaders to think not only about results, but about how each employee demonstrates the company’s values when undertaking assignments. 

By doing this, companies are encouraging employees to think about their actions in relation to company values and live them on a daily basis.