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Workplace Culture is a Philosophy, Not a Checklist

By: Sue Bingham


Not everyone gets a buzz from crossing items off a to-do list. But for those who do, it’s quite the rush. If you could bottle that feeling of scrawling a black line across that final task or clearing the last goal from your screen, the street value would soar.

But not every endeavor can be broken down into items you check off and forget about. When companies use a checklist mentality to create a strong culture, they only focus on culture for a season with involvement initiatives, campaigns, banners, slogans, and motivational messages. Then they move on to the next issue. But these tactics don’t translate to genuine employee empowerment; they’re unsustainable and lead to zero lasting change.

There are three things all businesses with great cultures have in common, but they aren’t things you can check off a list; they’re philosophies that are incorporated into every aspect of the company.

1. They Focus on Outcomes, Not Activity

Focusing on activity is a sure-fire prescription for more work, more stress, and diminished results. We all have a to-do list, but do we really stop to consider the impact of the work we’re doing, or are we just doing it?

Oftentimes, companies take the right step by involving employees, but they get so caught up in checking things off the list that they lose sight of the potential impact. This causes a lack of follow-through and sustainability.

Instead, take the time to focus on the results you want to achieve, and write those down as “desired outcomes.” Next, identify a process for achieving those desired outcomes—just make sure the process involves your team.

If you start with the outcome you desire in mind, it’ll keep you from getting onto the “activity treadmill” that’s all about checking boxes and not getting results. Besides, the outcomes are way more exciting and energizing than the steps it takes to get there.

2. They Don’t Shape Policies Around the 5 Percent

I once worked with a company that had fallen into the policing rut. Its employee policies were focused on catching the 5 percent of bad apples with a point system for attendance, a punitive discipline policy, and countless “thou shalt not” rules. Everything was based on negative assumptions that people would behave badly given the chance, which created frustration and hostility.

The solution was to develop what we call an “operating system”: a way to achieve a high-performance workplace by turning your values into behaviors, actions, and policies. This consists of the intentional changes you make to ensure that the 95 percent of strong, trustworthy team members are treated like adults. This approach opened a few eyes and helped turn that company around.

3. They Build a Values-Driven Culture

So many companies say that they believe in their employees and their organization is based on trust and respect, but their practices say otherwise. Small businesses can only be successful when the company’s actions and values align.

Small businesses usually get it right with culture initially because the owners operate off of their own values, and they’re usually highly involved. The challenges come when the company grows. With growth come bureaucracy and a focus on risk mitigation instead of a focus on the 95 percent.

Many leaders also leave their values at the door because they think that’s what’s necessary to get ahead or because that’s what their mentors do. But values should become the filter for the decisions the organization makes. When leaders use their values as a filter for daily challenges, they’re creating a culture that’s in alignment. This concept really does have the potential to transform individuals, organizations, and communities.

A great culture is built on consistency and authenticity. Small businesses have a head start in building great cultures because they’re free from bureaucracy, and everyone feels ownership in the company’s success. But if you’re hooked on checklists, you’re going to have a long uphill battle. Focus on adopting a philosophy instead, and you can transform your workplace into a fun and challenging place to work.

What’s your company philosophy, and what are you doing to reinforce it on a daily basis?

Published: August 4, 2014

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Sue Bingham

Sue Bingham is the founder and principal of HPWP Consulting. She works closely with company leaders to analyze their organizations and facilitate the implementation of commonsense systems that have a positive impact on their organizations’ bottom line. She has a passion for helping companies embrace and transition to high-performance work environments.

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