Winning the Culture Wars

05 December 2022

The importance of codifying your culture to improve employee engagement and employer branding

Recently speaking to a senior leader in a leading law firm, I asked why she had jumped ship from one firm to another.  The two firms on the face of it are very similar – and let’s face it, so many law firms look the same from the outside.  Yes, there was the sense of a new challenge.  She’d achieved a lot.  To a greater extent, her work there was done.  But what she also revealed was that during Covid, the culture had become toxic.

As we lurch from one global crisis to another, culture has never been so important.  These monumental events are testing the cultural reflex of organisations:

How does your culture fare under stress?  Do some leaders reveal their true personality?  Does the veneer of respect and psychological safety disappear in the blink of an eye, much like a Liz Truss Premiership?  Or does your culture show its strength and use its muscle memory, to protect its people, preserve its value structure and retain and attract top talent?

Often organisations and leaders look at culture as something that simply exists like words on a page.  Yet the derivation of culture is in part from the Latin ‘to cultivate’.  It is a living, breathing eco-system, which forms and grows at the core of a community of people.  It goes right back to the beginning of civilisation, as humans came together to create communities, tribes and villages.  Of course, it is accompanied by a social structure – just as organisations have an organisational structure.  While that structure might be the machine, the culture is the oil that makes it work.

It is useful to go back into the past to understand the material and non-material facets that combine to form a culture – and to show that it is more than a set of values on a wall or even a list of competencies.

Symbols – the symbols that evoke reactions and emotions, and make social interaction possible.  This can be anything from symbolic gestures to symbolic images.

Language – the language we use to communicate.  This is not simply about using English as your business language; but the way you use language to build that sense of community and sharing.

Norms – the standards and expectations for behaviour.  David Morrison said that the ‘standard you walk past is the standard you accept’ – and behaviour is so important for setting the tone in an organisation.

Rituals – the established practices or ceremonies that often mark transitions.  This could be about celebrating promotions, creating the best-possible onboarding experience or simply saying thank you.

Values – the things we prize. What is it that we value and prize about the organisation we work in?

Artefacts – the tools that a community uses. Of course, this is no longer about stone instruments, but the tools that really impact on the community of people.

For some organisations, these cultural characteristics are often already in place.

The symbolism of a leader sitting in an open plan office.

The language of we rather than I, or simply ‘what do you think?’

The norms of respect, encouragement, support and more.

The rituals of recognition.

The values that people really believe in.

The artefacts of communication and collaboration that bring people together.

When we start to think about the workplace as a community with rituals, symbols, values and more, we make it more human.  We recognise what really matters.  And we pay attention to it.

So if you haven’t codified what makes your culture special and different, do it now – and work hard to maintain those rituals and norms, those values and symbolism.  Because it matters so much more than you might think.



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