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How to Define Culture in the Workplace

| By Dr. Donte Vaughn

Managing company culture is no longer an option. It’s a must.

The modern workplace and workforce are changing faster than ever, with generational trends, shifting values, digitization, hybrid work models, and a volatile labor market all impacting what we once knew.

70% of millennials, for example, prioritize the ‘people and culture fit’ of a company over other factors, while 58% of people who have left a job due to company culture ultimately left because of their manager. These statistics are just a few out of hundreds making it clear that effective leaders need to focus on people and culture in the workplace. As a fairly novel phenomenon for some leaders, building company culture can seem like a fluffy effort, even intangible—but that’s not the case.

In this blog, we’re diving into the first two pillars of Culture Performance Management™ (CPM™)—an empirically proven solution for defining, implementing, measuring, and managing company culture—to give you a concrete and step-wise strategy for defining culture in the workplace once and for all.

Defining Culture in the Workplace

Company culture is not the result of one thing. It’s not something that can be cultivated overnight. Company culture, rather, is the culmination of values, ideals, attitudes, actions, behaviors, and goals—whether they are shared or not. To build a strong company culture, aligning on what these attributes and characteristics look like in practice is paramount. Once they’re defined, measuring and managing them is what creates a positive work culture. So, before you can define culture in the workplace, your leaders need a clear understanding of what company culture is and is not.

Company culture IS the result of:

  • Shared mission, vision, and values
  • Leadership behaviors and actions
  • Measured and managed accountability
  • Sustained practice and results
  • Continuous learning and development

Company culture IS NOT created through:

  • Culture surveys
  • Happy hours
  • Gift cards
  • Free snacks
  • Working from home

By the nature of these bullets, you can see that building company culture takes hard work, difficult conversations, big decisions, and unwavering commitments. Fortunately, there are solutions to help you along the process and clear steps to take, starting with pillar one of the CPM™ methodology: Select your company’s value system.

Select Your Value System

Just like any other process that you measure and manage, company culture can only be successful once it’s defined. This starts with a foundational set of core values, the basis for every CPM™ system.

Core values are the guiding principles and fundamental beliefs that inform your leaders, stakeholders, and ultimately every employee within your organization, how to act. They should be aligned with the company’s mission and made actionable through correlating behavioral standards and expectations.

There’s an art and science to selecting the right value system for a company. In From CULTURE to CULTURE, co-authors Dr. Donte Vaughn and Randall Powers provide insight on selecting effective values:

“You must bridge the gap between value-intent and value-practice. To make the connection, leaders must progress from selection and communication of the core values shaping one’s future-state culture to defining these values with specificity regarding the behaviors that individuals must practice to embody those values. Once the work has been done to establish the core values that are paramount to realizing or sustaining a positive workplace culture, leaders must transition from a broad and generalized understanding of what these values mean to a specific and actionable definition of how these values must be exhibited daily.”

Need help refining or creating clear and compelling core values that align with your organization’s mission and purpose? We have an expert-facilitated CPM™ package that can help you hit the mark.

Define Your Core Values (With Examples)

Once you select your company’s core values, the next step is to understand how you believe these values are paramount to your business’s success and the specific behaviors and actions that embody them. Let’s look at an example, using the core value of Innovation.

First, get a clear and concise definition of what each core value means from a trusted source, as interpretations can be subjective. According to the MSN Encarta Dictionary, Innovation means “to seek new ideas or enhancements to processes and products that improve how we serve our customers every day.

Next, make the definition actionable by including specific behavioral expectations that can be practiced at every level of the organization. Think about what it would look like reflected in your organization:

  • Does the value of innovation, as defined, mean presenting solutions in tandem with problems?
  • Does it require an interest in continuous improvement?
  • Does it mean that in our daily interactions and follow-ups we expect leaders to ask employees their thoughts and ideas regarding how the process can be improved?

When defining the behavioral expectations underpinning your company values, you must be specific, so it’s clear how you expect frontline leaders and employees to behave. Be unwavering about the exact behaviors that leaders must embody to represent your core values and build company culture.

Establishing behavioral standards makes the value you have defined real and practical for the stakeholder. Without the behavioral expectations clearly defined, a value term and broad definition is simply an idea left open to interpretation.

With all of this in mind—create a definition that will resonate with your company. For example, “Our Innovative team members are observant, aware, encouraging, and bold: they always seek out, solicit, and share methods to improve how we serve our customers quicker, faster, and with better quality.”

Finally, you want to define the “standards of engagement” for each core value. These are the actionable behaviors that demonstrate the successful embodiment of that core value. These standards define how your leaders and employees are expected to treat others when interacting or making decisions on behalf of your company on a daily basis. A standard of engagement for Innovation can look like this: I will not dismiss someone’s idea, no matter how silly I think it is.

You’ll want to define a few standards of engagement or actionable behaviors for each core value. In our experience, only 30% of companies with a value system have defined their behavioral expectations—leaving room for interpretation, ambiguity, and confusion down the road.

Want a pro-tip? The CPM™ software helps you determine standards of engagement for common core values. Once you know your value system, simply select each core value within the software to reveal a list of empirically supported behaviors pre-loaded for your leaders.

Common Questions About Defining Culture Values

We’ve implemented custom CPM™ systems in companies of all sizes and industries—and during the process of selecting and defining their values, several questions often arise. Whether your company is working on this step itself or with an expert, read these frequently asked questions and answers:

  • How many behavioral standards should I define for each core value?
    We recommend defining 5-8 behavioral standards for each core value. A helpful starting place is to work backward from the successes in your organization and evaluate the behavioral skills, competencies, and characteristics that have contributed to those successes. Through that evaluation, you can start to find behavioral themes that connect to your fundamental core values.
  • Does providing a standard or behavioral expectation limit my leaders’ natural abilities?
    Someone can stylistically approach the standards of engagement in their own way with the root of the behavior still reflecting the core value.
  • How do you make the core values actionable when people have different roles?
    The simple answer is that the definitions we use for each core value and standard of engagement are defined empirically through the CPM™ system. As human beings, there are behavioral characteristics that inform our impressions, interactions, and actions with other people, which make us unique. However, to create a common experience in the workplace, you need to define the expectations you have of people. Let’s take the core value, Integrity, for example. If Integrity is defined as “doing what you say you’re going to do and remaining disciplined in the company’s protocol”—whether you work in quality control or an executive office, you can fully embrace and embody that core value, applied across your unique responsibilities.

Creating Culture at Work

Selecting and defining your company’s value system is a huge step towards creating culture at work. If you’ve made it this far in your company culture journey, congratulations. If you’re just getting started on this step, we encourage you to take advantage of the CPM™ resources and packages available to you.

Once you’ve succeeded with the first two pillars discussed here, you can connect these terms to when and where real company culture is nurtured—on the front line. This connection happens in pillar three of the CPM™ system: Connect. Watch this short video to see how you can connect the dots between your values and leadership behaviors.

  • Pillar 1: Select the values system
  • Pillar 2: Define the leadership behaviors
  • Pillar 3: Connect the values to engagement and decision-making
  • Pillar 4: Learn through on-demand development
  • Pillar 5: Practice with real-time execution
  • Pillar 6: Refine for continuous improvement
  • Pillar 7: Measure culture performance

Start Building Your Company Culture

We told you building company culture takes hard work, and you might be realizing there’s a lot more strategy and science behind selecting core values than you thought. As the foundation for all activity in your organization, core values are worth your time, energy, and attention—and selecting them should be a collaborative effort among your entire leadership team. This process can be difficult without the support of a subject-matter expert.

At CultureWorx, we provide expert-facilitated sessions that help you get to the root of your company culture. We go in-depth with your team to uncover gaps that could prevent a positive workplace culture. Once your custom CPM™ is in place, our software solutions work to continuously teach, reinforce, refine, and measure how well your leaders are working to cultivate your desired company culture.

Company culture isn’t built overnight. But you can start laying your foundation today. Interested in learning more? Discover the complete Culture Performance Management™ system and find a package that’s right for your organization’s culture needs, timeline, and budget.

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