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Time To Transform Your Workplace Culture? Take This Step First

Jo Eisenhart •  July 7, 2015 | Business and Careers

When you think about all of the factors that combine to create a dynamic, engaging and productive workplace, you cannot overestimate the importance of culture. In a 2013 survey conducted by consulting firm Strategy&, the vast majority of respondents said culture was critically important to the success of their workplace. In that same survey, however, more than half said their corporate culture could use a major overhaul.

It’s not surprising.

My company is considered a leader in its industry, yet an employee survey conducted a few years ago yielded results that were not as positive as we had hoped. The revelation caused us to take a critical look at our workplace culture. How could we do a better job of helping our employees feel valued, nurtured and challenged? We know that having an engaged workforce will make our company more successful. So today, we’re focused on breaking down bureaucracy, eliminating unnecessary work and encouraging innovation. As a result, we know our culture will evolve for the better.

Transforming an organization’s culture requires much more than setting up a new foosball table in the lunch room or designating Fridays as casual day. Culture runs deep. It’s reflected in attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviors. And that’s why it’s necessary to dig deep if you want to bring about change.

The first and most important step you can take is to understand your current workplace environment and the many factors that combine to create its culture. In the 1980s, MIT professor and psychologist Edgar Schein identified three distinct levels of organizational culture, and I believe you cannot fully evaluate (or successfully change) your culture without considering them all.

1. Artifacts. Artifacts are tangible elements of a culture that are visible to the people on the outside—things like a company’s mission statement, products, logos, workspace design, breakroom amenities and even dress code. As an example, if you look at the leadership team pictures on my company’s website, you’ll see we’re all wearing suits and are posed in front of a formal background. It’s what you might expect from a financial security company that helps people manage risk. In contrast, several weeks ago I visited the offices of a startup company we recently acquired, and their leadership photos suggest a much more casual dynamic—exactly what you’d expect from a fast-moving tech company. In both cases, when people see the photos, they’ll make assumptions about the cultures of our companies.

2. Espoused values. Espoused values are an organization’s beliefs, morals, ideals and values that are championed by its leaders and expressed publicly. An espoused value could be a public commitment to corporate social responsibility, a dedication to work/life balance as outlined in recruiting materials or a pledge to support local charities as detailed in an annual report. You might also be able to infer an organization’s espoused values based on its public associations. In the case of my company, for example, some of our espoused values are exemplified in our partnership with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA®). Like the NCAA, we believe that through preparation, hard work and the pursuit of excellence, everyone can achieve his or her potential in life.

3. Shared basic assumptions. The last of the three levels of organizational culture is what Schein calls shared basic assumptions. These are the deeply embedded, taken-for-granted behaviors. Often these assumptions are so well ingrained in the office dynamic that they are hard to recognize. Here’s a simple example: If your boss asked you to get something done “soon,” what would that mean? In a global Fortune 500 company, “soon” may be next month or next quarter. In a nimble startup, “soon” might mean tomorrow or next week. In either case, the people in the organization intuitively know what’s meant by “soon”—it’s their shared, basic assumption.

By evaluating all three levels of culture—artifacts, espoused values and shared basic assumptions—you’ll begin to build a complete picture of your company’s current culture. And once you know where you stand, you can create a vision for what you need in the future.

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