How to Create a Great Culture People Don't Want to Leave
Updated: Apr 24
The easiest way to think about workplace culture is “the way things are done around here.” To be more helpful, we need to be a bit more specific to understand just who and how it is created and sustained. There are 4 key elements of culture: the behaviors (especially the leaders’), organizational values, systems and processes, and the mission and vision. A great culture is what you create when all four of these are aligned. When gaps start to appear, that’s when you start to see problems — and see great employees disengage or leave. If your best employees are leaving, take a hard look at your company. Find those gaps, and fix them. That way, you won’t have to have the unwanted employee disengagement and turnover which is so costly.
Does a great culture mean Ping-Pong tables, free meals, and Friday Beer Bash? No.
Yoga, CrossFit classes, and massage chairs? Great for supporting mental health, alas no.
The promise of being part of an inclusive, collaborative, supportive team? Unfortunately, no.
The easiest way to think about workplace culture is “the way things are done around here.” To be more helpful, we need to be a bit more specific to understand just who and how it is created and sustained. There are 4 key elements to culture: the behaviours (especially the leaders’), organizational values, systems and processes, and the mission and vision. A great culture is what you create when all four of these are aligned. When gaps start to appear, that’s when you start to see problems — and see great employees disengage or leave.
These gaps can take several forms. A company might espouse “work-life balance” but expect people to stay late consistently every night (a behaviours-system gap). You might espouse being a learning organization that develops people, but then not give people the time to actually take classes or learn on the job (system-behaviours gap).
Gaps like these are never solved by just hiring a Chief Culture Officer or pulling together culture committees. Likewise, inspirational leadership, the repetition of value statements, and letting people be themselves are important, but they are by-products of a healthy culture, not the drivers of one.
How, then, do we repair a flagging culture? A place to start is by reviewing the behaviors, systems, and practices in place in your company.
A common culture-building practice is the creation of value statements. But the real test is how leaders behave; how they enact these values, or don’t. People watch everything leaders do. If leaders are not exhibiting the behaviours that reflect the values, the values are meaningless.
Employees also need clarity, but of a different kind. Every employee I have managed would give up their so-called perks for one thing: clear expectations. Given your organizational values, which behaviours consistently get rewarded? Which behaviours lead to promotion?
Spend the time identifying the behaviours and skills that express each of your organizational values. For example, if I saw someone exemplifying the value of “teamwork,” what would she be doing? What would she not be doing? Clarifying expected behaviours for employees holds leaders accountable as well. Does a manager value face-time more than outcomes? Is a leader always ten minutes late to a meeting? These are the real-world behaviours of culture and values. Before we know it, the organization becomes known for late meetings, and apathetic leadership. And then we wonder why we have an attrition problem.
When expected behaviours are clear, we can focus our time on practicing those behaviours. Accountability becomes easier to measure and success easier to attain.
Systems and Processes
Every process that is created, every system installed, every technology that is used, every structure that is designed, every job title that is given will reinforce or dilute the culture. There are five key systems that are important to the overall cultural system:
Hiring: Instead of the common default to hiring for “cultural fit” — we can look for behaviours that are cultural complements. This moves us away from the tendency to hire people who think the same and towards a company built on diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas that complement culture while also enriching it.
Strategy and goal setting: These activities do two things, culture-wise: engage people around similar goals while also providing guidance on outcomes employees are expected to produce.
Assessing: How are behaviours assessed? How often are they reviewed? Is feedback shared consistently, and is it weighted based on who said it?
Developing: Culture problems can arise when a “safe learning environment” turns into a way to punish employees for low scores rather than a way to help them grow.
Rewarding: What is the criteria to become a manager, director, vice president? What are the expected behaviours that earn a person said title? What technical and leadership skills are needed? These are all expressions of culture and values, but too often they are perceived as random.
A good culture sets up these processes so they support one other.
Mission and Vision
Having a clear share vision and core business purpose empowers leaders to do two things, culture-wise: engage people around similar goals while also providing guidance on outcomes employees are expected to produce.
Yes, culture is intangible in many ways, yet it is the foundation for how well the whole organization performs. The soft stuff is the hard stuff, as they say. It can take time to define, yet if the time is spent clarifying the desired behaviours and holding people accountable for them, you can close the culture gaps and stop your best people from disengaging or saying, “I know it’s a great culture, but I am leaving.”