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Culture is contagious: What are your employees catching?

February 09, 2016 by Arnaud Grunwald

Culture is contagious: What are your employees catching?

It might be as intangible as 'the feel' of the office; perhaps it's the unspoken but quite obvious 'this is how we do things here' attitude; maybe it's made clear in the way that staff and management relate to one another. And maybe it's not. It's organizational culture. It has a major effect on how an organization functions. And it charts the state of health of your workplace.  

In the simplest terms, organizational culture is about those things on which the company places a high value. But it's rarely that simple.

A respected expert on organizational culture, Edgar H. Schein, identified three major 'layers' of an organization. Aspects of culture can be found in all three.

The outer layer, which consists of the physical and visible representation of the organization, including the office environment or brand, is not where you will find culture. While the middle layer, which consists of the Mission and Vision and other Policies and Procedures, can affect and impact culture, it’s still not where the gist of the organizational culture resides. The organization’s culture is a living part of the unofficial, sometimes even secret life of your organization – the deepest layer, where culture is 'caught, not taught'. And there it flourishes and spreads from one employee to the next.

A big problem, many companies face as they start getting larger, is a gap between the official and the unofficial versions of what your organization is about. And very often, leadership are unaware that there are two realities co-existing. A relatively new employee's perception of the day-to-day working environment might be totally different from the lived experience of long-standing staff.

When thinking of impacting culture, it’s at this inner level, at the core of the organization, that you find the deep-rooted beliefs and assumptions that shape employees' performance and interactions in the workplace. It's the hardest layer to change. And it's often there that you find the biggest gap - between rhetoric and reality.

The good news is that deeper levels of employee experience can be made more accessible, if you approach it the right way.

A key strategy to stay on top of your organization’s inner layer is to listen to your employees. Now, this is easier said than done in most cases. While organizations are small, this can be accomplished easily. But, as the organization becomes larger, this becomes more challenging. At this stage, organizations start putting in place yearly engagement and employee satisfaction surveys. While these are great, the information that you get tends to be extremely delayed. Companies go through long planning and execution periods before the data can be collected and digested. It’s not uncommon for these results to be seen by company leadership 6 to 9 months after the survey. By the time action plans can be put in place, it might be already a year.

In today’s day and age, these might not be enough, and you need to look for new tools and processes which can help you listen to the inner layer of your organization. By having a real-time pulse of your organization, you can be watchful for any gaps that start to show in the culture and affect it at immediately. Letting employees contribute anonymously is a key part to getting honest and open feedback. Protected by anonymity, your team can communicate, learn, share and be heard, on free and neutral ground.

Edgar H. Schein asks this question:

“How does one produce a climate in which people will speak up, bring up information that is safety related, and even correct superiors or those of higher status when they are about to make a mistake?”

At Hyphen, this is what we are passionate about answering!