Fostering a Healthy Organizational Culture

Organizations have their unique cultures and no two are alike. An organization’s culture manifests in the pervasive and enveloping feeling employees harbor about their job, career, and employer. Culture is a latent abstract mood that hangs like an invisible blanket over the work environment. Because it is intangible it is often dismissed as inconsequential. Cultures vary like the colors on a painter’s palate and they can be positioned on a continuum some place between toxic on the far left and trusting on the far right.

Why Culture Matters

Countless case studies have identified a correlation between culture and productivity, customer satisfaction and employee retention. Culture’s impact on an organization when compounded over time, in no small way plays a vital role to the success or failure of a company.

Culture & Customers

The long-term success of any business is predicated on sustaining and growing its base of satisfied customers. The surest way to out-distance the competition and ensure the longevity of a business is to foster a culture that produces happy employees. Happy employees make for happy customers. Take a tip from the sage old farmer, “Contented cows give more milk.” Although this principle appears to be self-evident it begs the question; how is it that there are so many unhappy employees?

The Silver Bullet Theory

Many companies have a myopic view of employee satisfaction and have been lured into a silver bullet approach. Compensation and benefits are seen by many business leaders as the magic elixir to satisfied employees.

Organizations taking the compensation bait unwittingly find themselves in a cold war arms race competing for talent. They are in a “Damned if they do and damned if they don’t situation.” Each year operating costs spiral upward driven by escalating human capital investments. So how can a business¬†blunt the silver bullet, grow employee loyalty, attract top talent, and generate happy customers?

More Arrows in the Employee Satisfaction Quiver

Business in general needs more trust and communication arrows in their employee satisfaction quiver. So what do some of these arrows look like?

  • Annual third-party employee satisfaction surveys that are acted upon by management are one example.
  • Skip level meetings in which employees meet with their supervisor’s boss once a year for a closed-door Vegas style meeting “What’s said here stays here”.
  • Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Unfortunately most organizational feedback falls into the 80/20 bracket with 80% top down and only 20% bottom up. The old-fashioned suggestion box whether it is old school or digital needs to be resurrected as part of the strategy to increase the flow of bottom up communication.
  • Town hall meetings and newsletters that promote direction, unity and synergy are a must.
  • A 360 feedback initiative that goes deeper into the organization beyond that of the top level leadership group and is not tied to compensation or bonuses.
  • A focus on employee personal development plans and a commitment to grow skills and careers.

These and many other low-cost, no-cost trust building activities can be transformative; and make no mistake, bottom up communication initiatives are on the radar screen of the top talent sought by company recruiters.

Several studies affirm that most employees would forgo a raise in exchange for a more trusting, communicative, and nurturing work environment. Ironically 99% of company career websites aimed to attract top talent put their pay and benefits packages in neon lights with little to no mention of their initiatives that promote a trusting and communicative culture.

HR’s Duty and Challenge

HR has a duty to champion a culture that will sustain the organization. HR must function as an organization’s culture watch dog and gate-keeper. They are the honest broker and culture barometer within the organization. HR is the culture captain just as their cohorts are guardians for their respective lines of business. However HR has a tougher row to hoe when it comes to implementing culture change in an environment that wants ROI now.

Cause and Effect in Business

Business operates on two irrefutable principles; causality and immediacy. Time is money, so every activity and new initiative must produce measured improvement quickly. A production manager can readily make the case for a faster widget maker but selling culture change is a tough nut to crack.

Selling Culture Change

Culture change starts the same way any other change initiative is launched; by selling the numbers. Pre and post initiative numbers must be part of any change program, and HR is no exception. Pre and post employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and turnover metrics help sell the project and they need to show how they correlate to bottom line productivity and revenue results.

Unlike the widget maker that shows tangible results immediately, culture change and its associated benefits are intangible and are not immediate and there lies the rub. Propositions with quick tangible returns will always trump long-term change proposals. That’s just the reality we live with. HR must therefore set the correct payback expectations, while¬†stressing the wisdom of long-term foresight.


Organizational culture exists and it matters. Over time culture can catapult an organization to the top of its game or send it into decline and obscurity. A healthy culture will always out-distance the competition on most every important front.

Changing the culture is not easy; it requires strategy, planning, patience and internal selling. If HR doesn’t do it then it is very likely that change won’t happen. Changing an organization’s culture may very well be the most important and rewarding experience that an HR professional could put on their resume.

Ron Hiller is President and CEO of Insights For Performance a technology driven management consulting firm that has been providing talent management solutions that empower people and inspire performance since 2003.