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Team Discussing Company Culture
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The Ultimate Guide to Company Culture: Inspire Employees and Build a Destination Workplace

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Stefanie Jansen

Culture is a vital and unique part of every organization. It makes people want to join a team and is the biggest reason employees choose to stay or leave. It’s the key to gaining (and maintaining) a true competitive edge — one that makes work a place people want to be.

But company culture can be challenging to define. Unlike pay, perks, and promotions, culture is a somewhat elusive quality that stands in a class all its own.

Although culture can’t be copied, it helps to learn by example. With our ultimate guide, you have two options to do just that:

Option 1: Grab a cup of coffee and settle in. We recommend setting aside at least an hour to read the entire guide and peruse the recommended resources.

Option 2: Bookmark this page so you can come back and read it a chapter at a time. Set aside a few minutes each day to work your way through every chapter.

What’s in the guide:

Chapter 1: What makes a company culture great?

Chapter 2: How employee engagement impacts company culture

Chapter 3: Company culture examples to emulate

Chapter 4: Company culture examples to avoid

Chapter 5: How to know if your culture is suffering

Chapter 6: Questions to ask to improve company culture

Bonus chapter: How to Inspire employees (without using money)

Chapter 1: What makes a company culture great?

Before we dive into detailed examples, it’s important to know what makes for an outstanding culture — the kind that results in lasting, bottom-line benefits like creativity, innovation, and productivity.

While the subject of organizational culture is largely open to interpretation, strong company cultures tend to share several common attributes:

  1. Autonomy: Successful organizations understand that one of the most significant drivers of productivity is pride of ownership in one’s work. Their employees are empowered to innovate and work autonomously, without micromanaging or hand-holding.
  2. Performance: High-performing companies place a high value on output (the quality of work produced) rather than input (the number of hours logged). Achievements are regularly celebrated in the presence of peers, who are also encouraged to recognize one another for reaching important milestones.
  3. Passion: Employees who are part of a strong culture tend to be united by a common path to purpose — not profits. When each individual’s goals align with the organization’s objectives, true transformation happens.

While these three characteristics are consistently present, the shapes they take are rarely uniform. Author and employee engagement expert William E. Schneider defines four core categories of company culture — control, competence, cultivation, and collaboration — that can prevail based on the inherent strengths of an organization and its employees. 

One 15Five employee described it this way:

“I fit best in collaborative and cultivating cultures, but terribly in control and competence cultures. Two jobs ago, I was in a competence culture, and I experienced it as a daily brawl, with everyone conflicting with each other. But some of my colleagues who are still there did well in that kind of environment. Some people thrive in environments where other people don’t.”

Bottom line: There’s no magic formula to take your company’s culture from good to great. The culture that works well for one organization might not be what works for another, and an employee who struggles with one style of corporate culture may fit well elsewhere.

Not done learning about what makes a company culture great? Check out these additional resources:

Chapter 2: How employee engagement impacts company culture

Science has consistently shown that the secret to high performance is not money — it’s intrinsic motivation. And the key to unlocking intrinsic motivation lies in engagement.

Employee engagement is your barometer of current culture. A strong company culture will be evidenced by highly engaged employees, while a negative culture can drive employees to disengagement. An unmanaged or poorly defined culture can also lead to disengagement.

But while culture and engagement go hand-in-hand, surveys show that 22% of organizations either have poor programs to measure and improve engagement or no program at all.

Once you start to focus on creating a culture of engagement, great things can happen. A large and growing body of research shows that organizations focused on creating cultures defined by meaningful work, deep employee engagement, and organizational fit are both outperforming peers and experiencing dramatic bottom-line benefits.

To see what we mean, check out these links:

Chapter 3: Company culture examples to emulate

When you look at companies known for innovation, you will rarely see individual superstars emerge within teams. Why? Because these are cultures in which everyone matters. Each employee has a voice; all teams are united around a shared vision.

While the culture that works for one company might not work for another, you can learn a lot from the companies that are getting it right. The following links provide great insights into actionable steps that corporations like Zappos and Southwest Airlines have taken to create fantastic cultures:

But what about organizations you haven’t heard of? It’s not just the Patagonias and Netflixes of the work world that are worth emulating.

Organizations that fly under the radar — often because they’re so focused on building truly fantastic cultures and avoiding vanity metrics — can be some of your best sources of inspiration.

Here are three lesser-known — but no less ingenious — influential examples:

  1. At ExactTarget, a unique “Orange” culture became such a competitive advantage that it was recognized in ExactTarget’s S1 filing — the first time culture has been cited as a differentiator in any IPO filing.
  2. Employee ownership and employee voice are the building blocks of an exceptional culture at Steel Encounters, where a strong sense of purpose has been demonstrated through engagement surveys.
  3. In contrast to many common practices in today’s workplaces, employees at Semco aren’t bound to organizational charts, five-year plans, or a values statement. Instead, subordinates hire and review their supervisors. And if an employee reaches a weekly goal of selling 57 widgets by Wednesday, he’s encouraged to “go to the beach and start again on Monday.”

You can learn more about these company culture examples at the following links:

Chapter 4: Company culture examples to avoid

A particularly poor manager once made headlines when he pulled employees into the conference room for a morale-boosting session — and proceeded to tell an HR staff member that she “brings nothing to the table.”

It only sounds like a scene from The Office. This true story was one of many recounted to The Washington Post for a feature on dysfunctional workplace cultures.

Examples of excellent company cultures abound; unfortunately, so do terrible ones.

Just as it’s helpful to review models of exceptional company cultures, you should also familiarize yourself with what not to do. Here are two resources that will send shivers down your spine (but hopefully in a constructive way):

For our ultimate guide, we also asked the culture and engagement experts at 15five for some real-life examples of what not to do. Here’s what some of them had to say:

“Government is a notoriously bad ‘beige wasteland’ where leadership is scared to spend money on culture initiatives. The result is a lot of busy work, slow processes, and incentives like college loan repayments that lead to unengaged employees who are just there for a payout.”

“My previous company actually told recruiters to aim for very ‘middle of the road talent’ because if they hired anyone better or with more drive, they would leave the company too soon.”

“Sometimes, in an effort to be known as a fun place to work, companies can go overboard when it comes to perks and socializing. I’ve seen leadership put so much emphasis on ‘play’ that they become unaware of the need to investigate or measure true engagement.”

Having a poor culture is a situation you want to avoid at all costs. You can hire talented people, but without strong leadership, even your most motivated employees will never reach their full potential or drive the company forward.

Chapter 5: How to know if your culture is suffering

This is arguably the most mission-critical chapter of this guide. After all, you can’t improve what you don’t know needs correcting.

The following resources will get you started with some warning signs to watch for:

After reading these, you’ll still be at the tip of the iceberg. As great as the advice in these articles is, it’s still based largely on instinct and observation.

If you really want to know where things stand with your company’s current culture, you’ll need quantifiable insights. Without data, you’re just trusting your gut — which increases the risk that your attempts to develop a culture of engagement will fail.

Employee feedback is the key to identifying which company culture examples are the best models for your organization. Gathering clear insights from employees will empower you to recreate or improve your culture confidently.

Which brings us to Chapter 6…

Chapter 6: Questions to ask to improve company culture

Which type of culture is prevailing at your organization? Is it working well for your employees? Are there certain aspects that are doing more harm than good? You won’t know until you ask!

Below are five questions to ask your employees regularly to keep your finger on the pulse of company culture.

  1. What aspects of your job bring you joy?

Knowing what brings joy to the people in your company is not only crucial to your culture but, ultimately, your bottom line. By asking employees to zero in on the most positive parts of their roles, you can help them uncover new processes and practices that support their growth and dreams. Doing so can help increase employee satisfaction — and having satisfied employees leads to more satisfied customers.

  1. How have you experienced or lived out the company values this week?

Asking this question keeps these values top of mind for everyone in the company. Knowing this might be a regular question subliminally forces employees to recognize how company values are demonstrated through internal decisions and interactions with peers and clients. This value recognition practice can also be the guiding force behind employee actions and conduct.

  1. What processes can be fixed or improved?

Processes are meant to make things run consistently and smoothly, and your team can clue you into the good, bad, and ugly of the processes currently running your business. Allowing your employees to speak up on any problems with existing processes empowers them to think of innovative new ways to improve them.

  1. When do you feel the most motivated?

This question allows employers to take a peek inside what works for incentivizing their team. What gets one person moving isn’t what gets another person moving. You need to know what motivates your people and create a flexible culture to accommodate these unique needs.

  1. How do you tell your family and friends about our company and what we do?

For your company’s sake, it’s a good sign of a healthy culture when your employees share a consistent story across the board. Chances of this are pretty slim, but what you can extract from the varying answers are the weaknesses in your company’s narrative and work to improve them.

Bonus chapter: How to inspire employees (without using money)

Pop quiz time. Without doing any research, how would you respond to the following statement?

When a company wants to motivate employees, the most effective strategy will rely primarily on:

  1. Compensation-based incentives
  2. Employee perks
  3. A combination of A and B
  4. None of the above

If you answered anything other than “d,” be sure to read this post to the end. You may be in for a surprise.

For decades, employers have traditionally relied on pay and perks to motivate employees. The underlying theory is that giving people tangible rewards will make them feel more appreciated, making them more satisfied with their jobs.

Unfortunately, job satisfaction is not always an indicator of true engagement. A growing body of research suggests that it’s the engaged employees who are outperforming everyone else at the office. And to be engaged, employees must be inspired enough by the company’s mission to do their job to the best of their abilities.

Inspired employees outperform satisfied employees

The next time you consider another round of bonuses and benefits, consider this study from Bain & Company, published in Harvard Business Review. The study asked 300 senior executives to assess employee productivity in four categories: dissatisfied, satisfied, engaged, and inspired.

Not unexpectedly, the satisfied employees were 29% more productive than their disengaged counterparts, and engaged employees were 44% more productive than those who were merely satisfied. 

Here’s the surprise: Inspired employees were 225% more productive than satisfied employees!

“From a purely quantitative perspective, it would take two and a quarter satisfied employees to generate the same output as one inspired employee,” said the study’s authors.

While the hierarchy of employee needs includes both satisfaction and engagement, it’s not until an employee reaches the top tier of fulfillment — inspiration — that they become genuinely motivated, focused, creative, and resilient.

No matter what industry you’re in or what kind of work your employees do, your company’s success depends on a culture infused with purpose and meaning.

How do you, as an HR leader, create a culture that will inspire employees to do great work? And if pay and perks won’t do the trick, what will? 

3 non-monetary ways to inspire employees

Many leaders believe that inspiring employees to do their best requires Steve Jobs’s charisma and the HR budget of Google. But the truth is, that’s simply not the case. 

Any team of any size can be inspired to do great work, and helping employees find meaning in their roles is far simpler than many realize. Here are three things you can do right now to get the ball rolling:

  1. Emphasize your mission

To start, focus on your mission statement. How is it presented? How often is it shared? Employees who understand how their roles contribute to the organization’s larger mission are more prone to be driven by passion and purpose. But reciting your company’s core values at an annual meeting isn’t enough to instill them. Come up with creative ways to help employees connect their everyday work to your vision and values — and be sure it’s reinforced with clear messages year-round.

  1. Share customer stories

Share customer stories showcasing how employees’ work improves people’s lives. For example, you might distribute especially positive customer feedback or announce when corporate profits are donated to charity and then share stories about how the money is being put to good use.

Can those stories really make a difference? Absolutely. In Give and Take, Wharton researcher Adam Grant tells the story of a university fundraising call center where revenues increased 400% after workers started hearing stories of students whose lives were being changed by school scholarships.

  1. Highlight employees

Don’t underestimate the power of employee stories as well. Use employee spotlights to inspire coworkers and celebrate staff who are living out your core values.

Build a stronger culture with 15Five 

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