How to Clean Up Your Company Culture the Right Way

September 30, 2016


As a leader, you’re accountable for everything from finances to branding to, yes, even company culture. With that accountability comes the pressure to do everything right. After all, half the difference in operating profits between comparable organizations derives from different company cultures.

But retrofitting trendy policies into already established cultures is a largely ineffective strategy: According to McKinsey & Company, 70 percent of all organizational changes fail, and culture changes fare even worse; the success rate rests firmly below 20 percent.

The pressures of leadership make it difficult to sit back and let culture evolve organically. But when it comes to building the right culture, you can’t dictate your company’s deep-seated values with the stroke of a pen. Sure, you can release employees who don’t want to buy in, but you’ll eventually end up with a culture of one if you don’t listen to what they want. Successful shifts take time and grassroots support no policy change can produce. If you have good reason to make a change, take these steps:

1. Examine Your Intentions With a Critical Eye

What do you really want to achieve with this change? Do you want a more open workspace to promote communication, or are you just trying to fit a ping-pong table in the office? Conduct thorough research so you know which changes to make and what you hope to achieve through them. Whether that’s improved production or fewer employee sick days, you should be able to measure the changes you want to see.

At StorageMart, we decided to implement a clean initiative to boost employees’ productivity and morale because for years, the self-storage industry carried the burden of a bad rap — particularly in terms of cleanliness. Prioritizing cleanliness shows my employees I’m investing in them: Messy workplaces damage employee morale, which can increase turnover rates; conversely, employees feel proud to work in a pristine setting, which even unconsciously shapes their behavior to match their environment.

2. Become a Cultural Rabble-Rouser

People who don’t care don’t make changes, especially when those changes require extra work on their part. Share and embody your vision with your employees so they understand the kind of business you want to build. Show them something that makes them want to be part of the future you imagine for your company.

Though cleanliness and attention to detail was always part of our cultural DNA, I knew we wouldn’t be able to scale effectively without preaching “clean” efficiently. To infuse the clean mindset throughout my company as it grew, I lead by example – picking up trash or demonstrating effective cleaning techniques. Reducing clutter pays dividends in creating focus, reducing stress, and improving health for the entire organization. My living and breathing “clean” has inspired my employees to prize immaculate service – and induces some customers to travel upward of 30 minutes to see us, even passing multiple competitors on the way.

3. Perk up Your Ears

Don’t try to fix a culture that isn’t broken or force something on your employees they never asked for. Many new leaders make the mistake of trying to instill a culture first and fit employees into the mold second – when, in reality, the personalities of your staff should dictate the culture of your business.

You can learn a lot from the people on the ground floor. Ask them what daily problems they face and how changes in the workplace could alleviate those concerns. Not only will your employees provide you with ideas you wouldn’t have discovered, they’ll also be more likely to buy in to your changes if they feel a sense of ownership.

4. Ensure You’re Not Burning Money

When pushing cultural changes, be careful not to lose sight of the primary functions of your business. Despite the urge to add Google-style perks to attract workers, cultivating a positive culture shouldn’t be costly. A poorly managed office can transform from a relaxed workspace into an inefficient and money-hemorrhaging one quickly. Recognize which changes need to be scrapped to avoid a dip in productivity or morale.

5. Don’t Force It

Sometimes, you can’t change a culture that’s been ingrained in your business for years. It takes time to change a corporation’s culture. The more people in your company, the longer change will take. Don’t get impatient when you don’t see changes happening right away; look for evidence that employees are putting in effort and the overall culture is moving in the right direction, even if it’s not going as quickly as you want.

Maybe your industry doesn’t attract the kind of people who appreciate the type of culture you envision, or maybe your customers would be confused by a new company image. In attempts to improve their cultures, companies such as General Electric and LinkedIn ceased tracking paid time off, and Zappos adopted a holacracy. But after Zappos’ change, its turnover rate skyrocketed because the flatter management structure bred confusion and self-government wasn’t for everyone. Whatever your business, don’t force changes on your organization if a cultural shift won’t benefit it.

No one can fully control company culture; it takes everyone working together to initiate real change. You can lead that change, but you can’t make it happen on your own. Let your employees be themselves, and help them – don’t force them – to build a workplace that fits both your business and their personalities.

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