Fostering a winning workplace culture

At a chance interaction, the HR head of a large corporate told me that they have a “family-like” culture in the office. And she did so with a perceptible air of achievement and pride.

While a culture of professionalism, efficiency and the likes are necessary ingredients for a successful company, I have niggling reservations concerning the ‘family-like’ culture and its contribution to high performance and excellence in a corporate set-up. Can we be like a family and still be professional in our workplace? That is a moot question that needs to be deliberated upon.

To gain a better understanding of the ‘family-like’ culture and lay my reservations to rest, I asked several friends in the corporate world what they mean when they refer to their
culture as familial. Their answer generally centred on high levels of camaraderie in the workplace and that they are generally able to work within their comfort zone and not get pushed often beyond their boundaries.

But then, is caring about employees and exhibiting concern for their welfare enough to increase productivity and enable the organisation to grow?

It is true that companies do not know how a certain culture impacts performance. The focus somehow is on creating a feel-good factor instead of a winning culture. Being amorphous, it is hardly on the agenda in strategy meetings.

Well, where targets and profits rule the discussions, there isn’t any space for softer things like culture. This ‘soft thing’ is highly capable of crippling strategies and restricting productivity, if not properly aligned. Simply aspiring for a family-like culture (which may or may not enable the strategy) is not enough.

So, should we replace the focus on establishing a harmonious working environment with more stringent individualistic performance-driven standards? No, the rule is to start with identifying why and how the culture is getting shaped.

Identify the nuances which are compelling the culture to be described in a certain way. Next, evaluate if those nuances are supporting the defined strategy. Identify the ideas, thoughts, actions which the organisation no longer wants to be associated with. Then comes the difficult part of converting the favourable and aligned ideas into observable behaviours. And these behaviours need to be in a language that is understood by all. Write them as your values and competencies which are aligned to your strategy.

Indigo Airlines is a classic example of how key behaviours are institutionalised to enable the strategy. Their campaign about always being on-time was brought to life by their flight attendants, who cleaned the aircraft between flights, reducing time at the gate and improving on-time performance.

The company’s values reinforced many of the elements that were critical to Indigo’s strategy, such as keeping costs low. As a result, Indigo is consistently among the most profitable airlines in the India.

The way favourable behaviours are institutionalised and irrelevant behaviours discouraged holds the key to building a winning culture. This is how:

Communicate, communicate, communicate: define the culture by outlining the values and competencies. Instil them in the DNA through everything you do. Communicate using induction programs, emails, town halls, and posters to help every employee understand the behavioural expectations. Tell them what it means when you say we value transparency. Talk about exact behaviours they must demonstrate when they are expected to demonstrate transparency.

Align systems and processes: make your performance management system speak the same language. Accountability and achievement cannot be concepts. Set high performance standards, stretch goals and publicly reward their achievement. Ensure that everyone is held responsible for their key responsibilities. Leaders owning up to the consequences of their decisions sets an example for the rest.

Demonstrate consistency: culture cannot be shaped with inconsistency. Every effort, every initiative needs to be consistently deployed or built upon. Any retraction or exception will be perceived as an option or choice to be adopted.

So, an organisation needs to strive for a perfect alignment of a ‘soft thing’ like familial culture with organisational strategies for productivity and growth. Identifying the appropriate ideas, thoughts and actions that are aligned with organisational strategy and then institutionalising them to promote desirable workplace dynamics to achieve stated goals is the key to developing a winning culture.

Organisational cultures develop over time and any attempt at a meaningful redefining of a culture will require the concerted effort of people at all levels of the organisation.

(The writer is CEO, SHRM India)

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