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2017 in review: Confronting culture

By Melissa Jezior

Back in January of 2017, I penned my first “year in review” column. You may recall that the focus was on high-profile employee “bad behavior” including the Wells Fargo phony customer accounts scandal and Mylan’s price gouging of its life-saving EpiPen medical device.

Who could have imagined that 2017 would be worse? So much worse.

This year, we saw continued lapses at Wells Fargo – more fake accounts and overcharging clients. Uber rode fast into the culture-gone-wrong narrative on so many levels, ultimately leading to the ousting of its CEO. And who can forget the viral video of a United Airlines customer violently removed from a plane for refusing to give up his seat to an employee?

And as 2018 begins, we’re all holding our breath for the next employee harassment or assault allegation.

All told, 2017 wreaked havoc in countless corporate board rooms, in the halls of government and around company water coolers. It has shattered reputations and lives, and has cost jobs and big bucks in settlement dollars.

But, there is an upside. These unprecedented and ongoing scandals are an opportunity for all of us to hold up the mirror and take a hard, realistic look at our own organizational culture and core values – confronting culture, I call it.

Why? Because culture and core values drive employee behavior and organizational performance. Period.

When culture, values and behavior problems arise, there can be many causes. Just like a disease, it’s important to properly diagnose the root causes – and there could be many.

There are organizations that probably didn’t foresee culture or behavior issues perhaps because heads are in the sand. Or, there are organizations where employees knew something wasn’t right, but were fearful to speak up. Or perhaps a corrupt culture was set from the top, and employee malfeasance cascaded down. Examples we’ve seen play out publicly include Uber, Fox News and the Weinstein Group.

In other cases, the problem may be that employees just aren’t aware or embrace the corporate culture. For example, our past research has found that nearly half—47 percent—of working age Americans say they do not know or are not sure about their company’s core values. We also found that among the employees that know their company’s core values, 89 percent said that the values indeed drive their behavior.

Seattle sets a high standard

Ideally, the right core values drive all organizational behavior, culture, and policies. When employees say they don’t know the organization’s core values, they are in essence saying there is not a shared ideal guiding their behavior. It can easily become the “wild west,” where each person decides for her/himself what is acceptable. As you can imagine, this leaves an organization vulnerable to crisis and can be detrimental to individual, team and organizational performance.

What’s interesting is that in 2017, we polled employees in Seattle (where we have a new office!) on these same questions. We found that 20% more Seattle employees know their corporate core values as compared to the national average. And, an overwhelming majority of Seattleites say that those core values drive their decisions and behavior at work and that their employer encourages them to raise ethical issues.

The research suggests that in Seattle, employees are far more likely to know, embrace, and live their corporate core values.I believe that our findings speak to the unconventional culture in Seattle – one where employee engagement, communication, and work-life balance typically are embedded in the corporate DNA.

Seattle is home to some of the world’s most innovative and successful companies, and it’s often because employees are working in an environment that empowers high performance and behavior aligned with corporate values and strategies. And these companies in the Emerald City have a competitive edge – both in terms of hiring and business performance.

Three steps to confront culture in 2018

Given the unprecedented state of affairs in 2017, it should be mandatory that every single organization – corporate, government and non-profit – confront their culture and values.

In doing so, leaders and employees will start the year with their eyes wide open. This means taking a deep dive on organizational culture and values; identifying issues and successes; ensuring employees are empowered and aligned; and dealing with problems. You may find your organization or team is in a good place. Or, maybe there are red flags warnings you hadn’t seen. Or perhaps there are deeply hidden issues that require immediate attention.

Regardless of your situation, here are three things organizations and teams should do to aggressively confront their culture in 2018:

  1. No more heads in the sand – conduct a culture assessment

    In the wake of high profile scandals, culture assessments are underway at both Fox News and NBC. Don’t wait until a culture and behavior problem is so pervasive that it erupts publicly, causing deep and expensive harm to your reputation, brand and bottom line.

    Even if the problem is small, disguised or hidden, you can bet there are warning signs. Employees sometimes come forward, but sometimes they don’t. Outside, independent and trained professionals can quickly provide leaders with an unvarnished glimpse at the corporate culture and whether employees are living the company values. You might even find that your culture and values are misaligned and need tweaking or an overhaul.

    To kick off the year, resolve to take this short quiz to get a sense of your culture and values. The quiz isn’t the solution, but it will get your head in the game and really thinking about where problems exist or could arise. Then, map out a plan to get an “eyes wide open” view of your corporate culture – from employee surveys to interviews with details and metrics. It doesn’t have to be expensive – but it has to be thorough and genuine.

  2. Keep out culture killers – hire people aligned with your values

    Head off problems by hiring only people who fit with your culture. The recruiting process is where the values dialogue should begin so there is a common understanding and clear expectations. It also sends a strong message that the company is deeply protective of its culture and will hold employees to a high standard.

    In 2018, resolve to crafting interview questions related to your culture and core values. Make it a requirement that all hiring managers ask all recruits the same values-related questions and evaluate each candidate against the same measure. This is a proven approach to effectively determine if a candidate is likely to align naturally with your values and culture.

  3. Follow the leader – empower and hold leaders accountable for culture

    Values cascade down from the top, to managers, to rank and file employees. That means company leaders must be setting the culture and values example and held accountable. If they aren’t, get them trained and leading, or show them the door. That may sound harsh, but culture is that important.

    For leaders who are leading by example and setting the right example, resolve to empower and recognize them. Give leaders the resources to become better leaders, tools and support to foster an ongoing values dialogue with their employees about values, and reward their success in performance reviews, salary and through public recognition or awards. In doing so, leaders will see that their culture and values focus really matters and has positive consequences on their career growth and compensation.

I said at the beginning of 2017, and given the transgressions that unfolded all year long, I believe it bears repeating: Culture and values are the heart and soul of any organization. When employees understand, embrace and live those values every minute at work, the result will be an organization that consistently delivers on its mission and goals.

In 2018, resolve to confront your culture – understand it deeply, change it if need be, or harness its power to propel you through the year. We are, and I would love to hear from you throughout the year on how you are confronting culture.

Best wishes for 2018!