How To Improve Your Company Culture: Q&A with CULTURE LABx’s Josh Levine

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The culture strategist breaks down culture into measurable parts, and outlines steps you can take to increase employee engagement.

Josh Levine, culture management strategist

Photo: Josh Levine

Josh Levine is the principal at Great Monday and a co-founder of CULTURE LABx. We got on a call to discuss what you can do to identify your company’s culture, measure it, and manage it for better employee engagement and business success.

“Culture is a powerful force, but it’s also a journey…”

Why does company culture matter?

Let’s start by defining culture. Company culture is fuzzy. It’s hard to grasp. People typically define it as the behaviors and norms that happen inside of your organization, and while that’s not incorrect, I don’t think it captures the vastness of what culture is.

My definition of culture is the cause and effect of the choices that we make:

If we think of business as a decision-making machine, culture is the relationship between decisions and what happens as a result of them. That does include norms and behaviors, but it also informs what we do, what other people inside the organization do, how we’re leading or being led, the mood of the office on any particular day, how annual reviews are handled, how employees are recruited, where they find their motivation …

Culture is everything. It’s the most compelling way we have to lead the people that work with us. That’s why it’s so difficult for people to grasp. But once you’ve defined culture, you can understand that it can be controlled and managed. And learning how to manage your culture will make your employees more actively engaged and happy in the workplace.

How do you actually know if you have a positive culture, or a toxic one? Are there ways to measure and benchmark your culture?

That’s exactly the question we need to be thinking about, and it’s a hard question to answer. What I’ve done with my colleagues at CULTURE LABx is try to answer that question by defining the components of company culture. Breaking it up into components – we’ve identified six of them – makes culture easier to define, evaluate and manage.

We call it the Culture Code:

  • The highest level is purpose: why do you do what you do, beyond making money?
  • Values come next: these are your beliefs about what’s important and what’s not. These two, purpose and values, are your culture’s core.
  • Next are behaviors. These are the decisions you’re making and actions you’re taking. Purpose and values set the stage for behaviors.

The final three components of culture are about how you identify and encourage the behaviors you want:

  • Recognition is how you applaud the people bringing your values to life.
  • Rituals are the behaviors you encourage, to develop a sense of community and strengthen relationships. This can be what lot of people mean when they refer to culture – Ping Pong and pizza – the stuff we do together.
  • And finally, cues.  These are the reminders of your purpose. They can be physical objects like posters or behaviors like stories of a company’s history.

Once you identify these six components of culture, you can start to evaluate them.

“Learning how to manage your culture will make your employees more actively engaged and happy in the workplace…”

How do you measure and evaluate the six components?

There are a few different measurement tools out there. A lot of companies do annual surveys, but once a year is too slow to get a real gauge of engagement levels and how you’re doing. It’s not very valuable.

We’ve developed a tool that involves regular check-ins, ensuring clients ask employees one question every two weeks. We use ten questions, but the questions are spread out to different employees and rotate every time. The questions are based on our 5 P’s of culture management framework.

Culture done well is a benefit to the individual and the organization. The business benefit comes down to engagement, so when you’re trying to measure, that’s where you need to look.

Are there common cultural challenges that companies face? How can they be addressed?

There are two common challenges: One, defining their purpose and values, and two, operationalizing them.

Can you scale culture?

It’s a big point of discussion right now. A lot of startups have grown so fast, and the question is front of mind for them. Look at the challenges faced by Zenefits, which is all over the news.

Scaling culture is hard to do, because as an organization grows its fundamental fabric weakens: in a small company everybody knows everybody. Once you get beyond about 60 people, you can’t know everybody anymore. You lose the strength of those common relationships. You don’t have the same level of feedback, you don’t have the same sense of what’s happening throughout the organization. Even if you know your purpose and you know your values, this can become a problem.

Culture is a powerful force, but it’s also a journey. You’ve got to pay attention to it, and give it your commitment.

Should companies consider creating a designated culture role?

Twenty-five to fifty percent of the CEO’s job should be culture. But it’s like finance – even though the CEO needs to give a lot of care to their company’s financial situation, they still need to have a CFO specifically tasked with overseeing it.

Would it make sense for organizations to have a Chief Culture Officer? Yes. But it’s a big, expensive ask. This is my wish for the world. It doesn’t exist yet, but I think it’s going to happen.

“Company culture is the cause and effect of the choices that we make.”

What is CULTURELABx, and who should get involved?

CULTURELABx is a professional interest group for individuals who are passionate about workplace culture. We have labs across the U.S. and Canada. Anyone who’s interested can check out our website for details on upcoming events. If there isn’t a lab in your area but you’re excited about the idea and know a few colleagues as passionate about culture as you are, you can start your own lab. Ultimately, it isn’t about your role or title, it’s about people who care about culture its importance to a company’s success.

Download the Culture Code [PDF], learn more about CULTURE LABx and find (or start) a local lab.

Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content
About the author

Christian De Pape is the head of brand experience at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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