Healthy vs Strong or both?


There is so much talk today about culture in business.  Equally, there are lots of people searching for the elusive holy grail of business and yet find it perpetually escaping them.  Sometimes I think that is because we over complicate it and are looking for something that is more complex than what it is.

The ‘culture’ of a business is really the collective energy and values that drive the organisation’s behaviour, performance and outcomes and hopefully all those within it.  To simplify it, we could say it is just ‘how we do things around here’ or even better ‘how we play in the sandpit’.  Culture includes all those messages (both overt and covert) about what really matters in the business.

The importance of good culture cannot be overstated; however it is often mis understood and mis-described as a strength.  A strong culture can be strong at either end of the spectrum – either healthy (good) or unhealthy (toxic) and of course anywhere in between.  The strength of a culture therefore is not about whether it is the right or wrong culture but is what dictates its power to drive behaviour, decision making and events.   The strength is directly related to the glue that bonds people together through shared ideas, values and behaviours. I have seen many businesses where there is a very strong and toxic culture.    Conversely, a weak culture is not always bad or unhealthy.   It means that ‘Culture’ has not been well developed or articulated and can also be a sign that environment is unstable.   However a weak culture can also create the ideal environment for change because it demonstrates more flexibility and adaptability.

The thing about culture is that every organisation has it, whether it was engineered or not.  Unless companies actually think about, talk about and work on culture it will simply evolve over time.   When it is allowed to simply evolved it will rarely reflect the values of the business owners or founders.

When a company is new, there tends not to be time to think about or work on culture as most business owners are too busy working on where to find the next customer and increase revenue and profits.   This approach is dangerous because without definitive work the culture will be evolving and not necessarily as the business owner may choose. Culture and values are, constantly evolving and changing. If there is no definitive work done on the culture and it is allowed to ‘evolve naturally’ then inappropriate and gradual development can often go unnoticed until someone realises that the ‘wonderful place we once had is lost’ and it is then quite a significant exercise to correct.

It is not easy or simple to measure Culture.  We all know about KPIs used to measure operational performance, profitability and growth.   However measureable indicators of culture are not as easy to identify or quantify. Operational standards can be achieved in any culture but  how  they are achieved is what reflects the culture. It is probable that the measuring processes used to define operations are not designed to pick that up.

A good first step in measuring culture is to make sure that people understand what your values are, which means that they can easily recognize behaviour and decisions that are inconsistent or consistent with the values. Most company values I see are a generic list of vague words or phrases that no one would object to, but no one understands either.   You may see them displayed on the corporate walls.   They are meant to underpin behaviours, decision making and performance, yet when asked to speak to them employees cannot articulate how they do so.

If you are looking to work on your culture, then begin with those core values. To get them right, try follow the mantra of  ‘keep it simple, be real and involve your team’  in their development.   I have worked with one Real Estate team who went through this process and after they identified those values and how they expected their team to behave when displaying those values, they came up with their slogan of…. “The GOOD property people”.   As a team they were able to define what this meant to the whole team, the business owners, and clients and customers in terms of behaviours and attitudes.  Over time their Culture became definable and measurable in terms of the outcomes for all.

The value of “being GOOD” now pervades this very successful award winning business.   Something tells me they have both a strong and a healthy culture.

If you would like to find out more and want advice on developing your own business culture, let me know.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you.


Rose Kelly


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