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What Culture is - and what it isn't

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How do you define your company culture? If it’s bean bags in the office, pizza lunches and after-work drinks, you might need to think again.

Too many businesses are taking the easy way out and mistaking perks and benefits for company culture. After all, it’s easier to put a pool table in the office than honestly assess your management style.

Here’s what good culture really is – and most importantly, what it isn’t.

Perks, parking and pay?

When hundreds of Twitter employees were laid off recently many of them took to social media to praise the company they’d been a part of. But why was the hashtag #lovewhereyouwork (adapted by the redundant Tweeps to #lovewhereyouworked) so prevalent? We don’t know for sure, but one thing’s certain: no one mentioned the free snacks.

The reality is that most candidates care less about free parking, fresh coffee and private health cover than you think. They’re not even driven by salary – in fact, half of all candidates said they would refuse to work for a company with a bad culture, even for more money.

Think about it: perks like food and drink, ‘fun’ activities and luxury treats are designed to make your employees feel rewarded and forge relationships with each other. But what about their relationship with you? Perks and benefits all go towards making a desirable place to work, but they’re not your company’s true culture.

Values and vision?

So what about values? Surely, that’s where good company culture starts.

Wrong again. Sure, values are important – they shape the purpose of your company and show your team what’s important.

But if values aren’t put into practice – by you, every day, from the top – they are just words on the wall. In fact, talking about core values can even negatively impact culture if they aren’t adhered to, as in some cases they can come to represent disingenuity.

There’s nothing as fake as a fake company value.

We are our habits

It’s ok, you say, we’ve put processes in place to ensure a positive company culture. Team away days, 1-to-1s, weekly catch-ups… the more our staff talk to their leaders and each other, the happier they’ll be, right?

As Will Durant succinctly paraphrased Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

But I beg to differ.

In terms of company culture, doing doesn’t necessarily mean being. What use is a weekly 1-to-1 if the employee doesn’t feel heard? A team away day might make your team closer, but what about how you talk to them day to day?

Instead, I ask: how are you communicating with your staff, not just formally but informally? Are you transparent about developments and problems, clear in instructions and positive in both praise and criticism?

And what about the other way? Are you listening to your employees in a way that makes them feel heard? Culture isn’t a midweek pub lunch – it’s how your words and actions make your team feel.

Actions and reactions

If I had to sum up what I’ve learnt about company culture I would say this: it’s not how you act, but how you react that makes the difference.

In other words, how are your leaders and managers reacting to the human element of your business? How do you deal with an employee who is struggling at home? How do your attitudes come across in the day-to-day running of your business – when someone gets something wrong, questions a decision, asks for help?

If you haven’t taken the time to properly design your culture, there will almost certainly be a disconnect between what you think your culture is and how your employees experience it – and this will affect your recruitment and retention rates.

Culture runs deep. And, whether you want to take responsibility for it or not, it starts at the top. It’s remembering that your employees are human, with human needs, lives, families and physical and mental health. No amount of coffee will make up for that.

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