Why every business needs a culture narrative that employees can own

By Cierra Dobson, Strategy Director, Rufus Leonard.

As employers across nearly all sectors struggle to hire talent in 2021, taking an active role in defining and embedding a culture can help attract and retain the best talent.

What do we mean by culture?

Compared to strategy and leadership, culture is described as the more ‘elusive lever’ of business effectiveness in HBR’s The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture because it is “anchored in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns”. That‘s why the power of culture to support (or derail) an organisation’s strategic goals is often overlooked or relegated to an HR silo.

Culture is collaborative by definition

The key to not sacrificing authenticity when defining a more aspirational culture is to ask a representative set of employees to be co-architects of the new definition, or ‘culture narrative’. It’s a natural way to help employees feel ownership and become engaged advocates for the long term. Employees themselves are the ones who ultimately control the culture in your organisation, effective leaders recognise and leverage that power.

The first step is to get under the skin of your organisation’s culture in its current form. This is especially critical with the upheavals of the pandemic and remote working. Even for a single individual, the how, when and why of work may have changed drastically over the last year and a half. What does it feel like to be an employee at your organisation now? Where do they believe the organisation is headed, and how do they see their role in that journey?

Asking and answering these questions isn’t always easy, so bringing in a third-party specialist can help you get an unbiased and unfiltered view. Also consider research formats: focus-group style discussions can garner higher quality engagement than anonymous surveys but pay special attention to the composition of the groups; mixing levels of seniority can quickly stifle candour.

The relationship between culture, purpose and diversity

Over the past year, many organisations have taken a hard look at the state of their Diversity and Inclusion efforts, especially as they relate to culture and purpose. Numerous studies have shown that diverse companies tend to be more successful; McKinsey’s Diversity Matters research shows that companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity were 36 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

It helps to get specific about the ways in which diverse individuals, perspectives and abilities connect to your organisation’s purpose. That means drawing on concrete examples from the day-to-day work and articulating their contribution to overall strategic objectives in a way your employees will recognise.

Individual stories are great but consider where the perspective of a few individuals have led to more widespread change across the entire organisation.

Conversely, the process of defining your culture narrative is an opportunity to find where current culture may hamper D&I efforts. Does valuing customer-centricity above all else mean employees with children are penalised when they ignore a client email during story time? An honest dialogue about the relationship between culture and diversity ensures all employees feel their experience as diverse individuals is recognised and valued within the company culture.

Words need to be followed with actions

Incredibly, research has shown little to no correlation between values professed and the actual culture reported by employees for most companies, and a major reason may be a lack of concrete guidance on desired behaviour [MIT Sloan Management Review 2020]. Successful internal narratives should align to how employees are hired and evaluated, how their wins are celebrated, and how they’re given new challenges and opportunities to grow.

The last but crucial step is to bring the culture narrative to life. Think creatively about delivering the messaging but also about how it should impact employee experience and behaviour. If innovation is a core value within your business, consider ideas like dedicated time for employees to experiment within a relevant challenge agreed to with their manager.

Translating an internal narrative into experiences people can see and feel is essential to prove that a company’s promise to employees is more than just words.


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