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If you were asked to describe your company, what would you say?

Would you talk about your industry, product or service, your revenue or KPIs, your headcount, your locations?

What if you were asked to describe your company culture. How would you answer that question?

This is a much more challenging question to answer, because culture isn’t quantifiable.

  • It isn’t your modern (or traditional) office space, although that can influence it.
  • It’s not your rating as a best place to work or employer of choice, although those positively reinforce aspects of it.
  • It’s not the highly rated universities you’ve recruited from.
  • It’s not about trying to emulate Google, or Amazon, or Disney, because that’s their culture, not yours.

While aspects of culture can be identified through various metrics, none of those get to the heart of workplace culture because there are nuances in between those metrics that aren’t easily measured. Yet it could be the most important question for you to answer because ultimately culture represents the personality of your company, and that personality shows up as your brand. And if your brand isn’t what you think it is, it could be destroying your company from the inside out.

Culture is a lot easier to spot when you’re not in it.

It’s the difference between Hilton and Holiday Inn, Apple and Microsoft, Southwest Airlines and American, Walmart and Target.

And it’s also the difference between your company and your competitors.

The interesting thing is that it’s not so easy to recognize culture or misalignment from the inside. That’s because when you’re in it you’re an active contributor to it. It’s like describing air. It just is, even though it’s for the most part invisible.

Yet if you’re new to the culture, it can be glaringly obvious.

New employees will typically notice the general mood and atmosphere, quality of onboarding or training programs, level of collaboration or competitiveness, expectations around time and commitment, and so on.

Culture, especially when misaligned, can also be easily spotted by outsiders. Poor customer service, disorganized hiring practices, dropped opportunities, product or service errors, public relations nightmares.

These things any newcomer to your company can tell you all about, but most organizations don’t think to ask. It’s just seen as “the way we do business.”

And that’s as close as many get to defining their culture. The way things are done. The attitudes and behaviors prevalent in the environment. The norms.

But there’s more to it than that. At its core is something far more elusive yet at the same time incredibly powerful. The Collective Mindset. Where the outward-facing side of culture represents the behaviors and attitudes, the norms and how things are done, the Collective Mindset are the perceptions, self and social identities, filters and blindspots, and beliefs from everyone in the culture that determine those behaviors, attitudes and norms. And unless the Collective Mindset is addressed, any attempts to change the outward-facing culture are likely to fail, because issues that pop up in the culture represent the symptoms, not the root of the problem.

When allowed to grow organically (which is often the case), the Collective Mindset develops a personality on its own. Once that personality has come to life, it’s harder to change, just as it is with people. And when it’s allowed to form on its own, without intention, your culture can cost you.

  • When employees are disengaged, it costs you in productivity.
  • When employees are unhealthy, dissatisfied, and/or highly stressed, it costs you with absenteeism, lost productivity, poor work quality, and extra work for others, all of which can turn into a downward spiral of counter-productive behaviors including negative experiences by current and prospective customers.
  • When employees quit, especially your star performers, it costs you time, effort and money to replace them. Sometimes the cost can be up to 200% of the departing employee’s salary!
  • When the Collective Mindset becomes infected with counter-productive elements like negativity, fear-based practices, power plays, political underpinnings, or disrespectful behavior, that mindset remains within the culture well beyond the people who originally influenced it. It’s like having ghosts of past employees mischievously interfering with otherwise normal operations.
  • And once behaviors and attitudes become ‘the norm’, the more embedded they are, the longer and costlier any changes you attempt to implement will be.

So if time, money and effort are important to you, it’s time to make your culture a priority, instead of an afterthought. Culture is your business. And as CEO… it starts with you.

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