4 Steps to Creating a Healthy Organizational Culture

Business team discussing adhesive notes in board room during a meeting
Maskot / Getty Images

Some company founders will sit down and discuss the type of culture they'd like to have from day one when starting a business. They are focused on creating a specific culture and strive to make the culture a reality. Sometimes they succeed at this, and sometimes they fail.

Every organization—whether planned or unplanned—develops an organizational culture. Sometimes, they develop over time from the interaction of the people in the company. Other times, they are constructed and encouraged to grow in the direction that the founders and chief executive officers (CEOs) of the firm wish them to grow.

The Purposeful Culture Group offers explanations. Here's what you need to know to shape your organization's culture purposefully.

How Senior Leaders Can Modify Their Organization's Culture

Joe in accounting is a great guy who is always friendly, kind, and fair, but his behavior is not enough to change the organization's overall culture. Steve in marketing can act like a jerk, but his bad behavior isn't enough to land the company in the "worst places to work" list.

But, the behaviors of senior leaders do cause changes to the overall organization's culture. To help guide senior leaders to become more attentive to culture and intentional about culture, consider these tips from S. Chris Edmonds, CEO of the Purposeful Culture Group.

1. Make Your Culture as Important as Results and Your Values as Important as Productivity

Your organization has stated performance expectations and works to hold everyone accountable for those expectations. What most organizations don’t have are expectations about values, liberating rules that ensure cooperation, teamwork, validation, and (yes) fun at work.

With both performance expectations and values expectations formally defined and agreed to, you know you’ve spelled out exactly how you want everyone to behave.

Do you say that your organization's culture is one of openness and honesty, but you make big decisions behind closed doors? If an employee complains about something, are they praised for bringing the issue to senior management's attention, or shunned for being a nay-sayer or tattletale?

Many companies say that they value one type of action, but they would never punish a manager for violating those culture rules. Make sure that you hold everyone in your organization to the culture guidelines. If you aren't holding everyone to them, it's not your actual culture.

2. Make Them Observable, Tangible, and Measurable

If you ask ten people in your company what integrity means, you’ll get ten different answers. (Maybe twenty.) You must define your values in behavioral terms. Craft "I value statements" that outline how you want people to behave.

You might decide that integrity means "I keep my promises" or "I do what I say I will do." Those specific behaviors leave little wiggle room for interpretation. Note that you’re only defining desirable behaviors rather than making statements like "I don’t curse at my customers." Formalize only the behaviors you want everyone to model.

I statements are somewhat difficult to craft if you aren't completely clear on what you mean. Lots of companies—especially in the startup world—want to have fun cultures. But what does that mean? Does that mean you play sports or have water fights at lunch?

If you can't define what a fun culture means, you can't enforce and measure it. It is a critical step that takes a lot of time, but do not skip it, or you'll never shape the culture you want.

3. Live Your Valued Behaviors in Every Interaction

Just telling people how you want them to behave doesn’t mean they’ll immediately begin acting that way. Leaders must be role models of desired valued behaviors.

How leaders embrace, model, and coach these valued behaviors is how team members will (or won’t) embrace them. Leaders modeling behaviors is powerful—and they must validate others’ modeling desired behaviors and redirect folks who are not modeling desired behaviors.

Living your stated values may also mean making hard decisions. If your stated value is fairness, and your I statement is “I treat everyone equally,” you have to fire the office bully, even if she brings in the highest sales and large amounts of money. It may seem painful to the bottom line, but your employees won't take your culture seriously if you don't make hard decisions in line with the values.

4. Hold Everyone Accountable for Living Your Valued Behaviors, Daily

Don’t tolerate bad behavior any longer. Just as meeting performance expectations deserves reward and recognition, so too should modeling desired valued behaviors.

And, just as missing performance expectations deserves redirection and coaching, so too should not modeling desired valued behaviors. By holding people accountable for both performance and values, you increase the frequency of desired performance and desired values.

It is the most critical step. You can't let a value slide because it's crunch time or a big client that you can't afford to lose is involved. If you do, then your real values are different than the stated values, and your real culture is not what's printed on the plaque in your break room.

As a leader, the most important person to hold to this standard is yourself. You can't make exceptions for leadership or high performers. It's either the company's value or it's not.

Holding people accountable every day will make a world of difference in how your company's culture grows and becomes a positive work environment. With a positive work environment, you'll see employee performance improve as well, and you'll make your workplace a more attractive destination for top-quality employees.