How to Influence Your Company Culture, Even If You're Not the CEO

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Let's say everything's equal when it comes to the position, salary, and benefits. Where would you rather work: at a company full of stressed-out employees, too afraid to speak up or take the initiative, or at an organization where everyone works just as hard, but there's laughter, conversation, and a spirit of teamwork?

The answer's pretty obvious.

Overhead shot of four young people with phones and computers, sitting on beanbags

Image source: Getty Images.

The second example is, of course, a workplace with a great company culture, and it's worth cultivating -- not just for employee happiness and satisfaction (although engaged employees are more productive) -- but also because a positive workplace culture attracts and retains top talent.

So, what exactly is company culture? And is it true that it comes from the top down, or can you affect it at any level of the company?

So, what is company culture?

Tristan Claridge, founder of Social Capital Research & Training, defines company culture as "a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs. It is the way in which people perceive reality, define it, and act in it. Each member of your team has past experiences that shape how they think, their values, and their beliefs. They carry these values and beliefs with them into any new role or situation. This forms their expectations of what are appropriate ways to think and act in the new situation."

The culture of a workplace is influenced by everyone who works there, and it can change over time, so needs to be nurtured in order to remain positive. Hiring and onboarding practices must be such that only those applicants with the attributes likely to positively contribute to the corporate culture are brought on. Similarly, employee satisfaction reviews and feedback should be in place and acted upon to ensure potential problems are dealt with before they impact the workplace.

That means, for instance, not hiring someone whose history indicates they have a tendency to blame others or disregard rules. It also means addressing an employee who seems to be suddenly uncooperative or disengaged to see if it's a problem that can be resolved or if it warrants formal action.

How the CEO can affect company culture

By recognizing the crucial element that company culture plays in the success of a business, corporate leaders can make sure their organization works to create and build one that works. According to leadership consultant Annette Klososky, there are 12 key components of company culture. These include elements such as teamwork, employee engagement, diversity, inclusion, and communication.

"A Harvard Business School study revealed that corporations with more workplace diversity represent 69% more in profit and revenue, with 91% of these corporations reporting higher customer satisfaction. Diversity will also increase employee participation, recruitment, and retention, especially for Millennials," explains Klososky.

Make the core values on which your company culture is based very clear. Some of these will overlap, and that's OK. If you've got integrity and outstanding customer service as two of your core values, they'll actually complement each other. High quality is another complementary value, as are commitment and responsiveness. You don't have to have more than five or 10 traits, but it's important to see them as the "main pillars of your culture," writes Vivian Maza, chief culture officer at Ultimate Software.

If your company culture isn't what it should be, work on enhancing the positive in what you've got. "Ask employees what they do and don't like about their current culture and work environment," suggests Alan Kohll, founder and president of TotalWellness, a national corporate health and wellness provider. "Leaders should use these suggestions to help create a positive corporate culture that's appropriate for their workforce."

Jacqui Barrett-Poindexter, Career Trend CEO, tells us that C-suite executives can further influence their company culture by following these five practices:

  1. Be accountable to your word. In other words, neglecting to follow through on what may seem trivial to you (the CEO) may be a big deal to someone who reports to you. That sort of accountability -- or lack of it -- has a huge ripple effect across the attitudes and morale of an enterprise.
  2. Be agile. If you are promoting agility in the market, then be agile with your employees. This may include things like being open to their divergent ideas for product development, service delivery, marketing, etc. It also can mean allowing flexible employee schedules, enabling a culture of work-life blend.
  3. Express confidence in your people to be successful. Mentor them, as needed. Show your direct and indirect reports respect and impress upon them their value to the company. Define and enable employees' roles in shaping the company culture. The more you express your trust in them, and provide the tools they need to do their jobs, the happier and more productive they will be, cultivating a more satisfying and loyal culture. 
  4. Communicate often, clearly, and with an inspiring demeanor. If you have difficulty communicating as a CEO, then assign a go-to person that others will trust to get the word to you and help to bridge any communication gaps or challenges. There's nothing worse than a CEO who is uncommunicative, or worse, abrasive and dispiriting, in their communications.
  5. Drive collaboration. Even if your enterprise engine is driven mostly by individual performers, find a way to coalesce the individuals as a collaborative whole. For example, tap more experienced performers to help train and/or mentor younger (or older), less experienced employees. This interactivity breeds relationships, trust, and new ideas.

How the entry-level employee can affect company culture

Yes. Everyone, from the CEO to the most junior person on the team, can influence company culture. Here's how you can influence healthy company culture, even if you're on the bottom rung of the organization. 

  1. Set an example for those around you by (OK, I know it's a cliche) being the change you wish to see in your workplace. Is there a gossip problem? You be the one to steer the conversation away from trash talk. Does everyone around you complain about Miriam's indecisiveness? Call them out. Behave in a way that makes others feel welcome, safe, and encouraged, and you may see others jump on your wagon. 

  2. If you see something, say something. Do you see a co-worker being manipulative and dishonest? Say something to your boss or to someone in HR. Bad behavior, when unchecked, has the tendency to grow, so if you see something that's not OK, don't be afraid to say so.

  3. Give credit where credit is due. When you see someone do good work, say something. You can compliment them in passing by the coffee machine -- Hey Jodi, I thought the stockroom looked so neat when you were in charge last week. You are an organization queen! Or even in the next meeting: The latest user experience update wouldn't have been possible without the great feedback from Barbara, who conducted so many customer interviews and put together an excellent report.

  4. When you're out of office, be out of office. Especially if you're a manager, treat your weekends and vacation time as sacred. If you're not responding while you're supposed to be OOO, then your direct reports won't feel like they have to be always on.

  5. See the people others don't see. Is your office lunch crowd always the same? Foster a culture of inclusion by inviting along new faces. Don't get sucked into clique culture.

  6. Do your job well. Set an example of good work. A culture of poor-quality work is so very contagious, but you know what? So is a culture of high-quality work.

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