Everyone in business wants to create a great culture. A good culture is of course good for business and nobody benefits when the culture is average to bad. But truth be told great workplace cultures are elusive. Although everyone stands to benefit from a great culture bringing one to fruition seems to be tricky, even for the most talented of leaders and passionate of business owners. I've spent the last 4 years working with a variety of employees, managers, and leaders across a huge range of industries. All good intentioned but more often than not struggling to create the right culture. I've also had my own fair share of experience as an employee in some good but not-so-good cultures. These experiences have given me unique insights into why this happens and what can be done about it.
One of the most important discoveries I have made is that not great cultures aren't usually - but are sometimes - the results of ill-intentioned or bad people. More often than not they're actually the result of well-intentioned good people unintentionally engaging in behaviors that don't serve the benefit of the wider culture.
The most important learning I can share with you is this. Creating a great culture isn't something that's achieved through passion alone. In fact, as I will explain in this post, without the right systems passion is often what creates a poor culture. A great culture is something that needs to be designed and is unlikely just to occur naturally. From my experience, the following four books contain everything you need to both offset the common pitfalls that negate culture and put the right things in place to nurture a great culture.
I'll list the books first and then give a brief explanation as to why each is important.
1 - The Five Dysfunctions of a team
2 - Measure what matters
3 - Traction
4 - Essentialism
1 - The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Those who find themselves in leadership positions are typical - but not always - big on the vision side of things. They have a clear view of what can be achieved accompanied by great ideas and heaps of motivation. One would assume that this is the perfect blend of traits for a leader to create a great culture. To an extent it is but the reality is that more often than not the vision and motivation of the great leader on its own isn't enough to create that ever-elusive leading culture. Why? Because, as is explored in this book human beings are led more by emotion than logic and human emotions make creating a great culture not as straightforward as one might hope.
Ultimately to create a great culture you need to understand why humans act the way they do, how their emotions can and do get in the way of what should be enjoyable steady progress, and most importantly what to do about it. This book is written as a fable about a fictional but very believable company. Through the fable, the five most common dysfunctions of a leadership team are discovered and ultimately presented in the Patrick Lencioni model. We, humans, are all wired differently. Without an understanding of that, a lot of preventable stress and frustration can stand in the way of progress for years.
As a leader reading this book is likely to lead to a lot of aha moments. As the common dysfunctions are explained you will instantly relate them to situations you are facing or have faced during your time as a leader. More importantly, you will realise that not only are these commonly recognised challenges but that there are already proven solutions available.
2 - Measure What Matters
Here is a situation I have encountered many times in my own life. I have also recognised it's a situation that virtually every team in every business I have worked with faces as well:
You get so excited by the scope of what could be achieved that you overwhelm yourself and others with a never-ending list of ever-changing goals. Even when using a goal-setting method like the SMART method there still seem to be many. Add to this it feels difficult if not impossible to get different people in different teams aligned to shared goals and not working in silos. The results of not having a defined company practice for setting goals are common, predictable, and bad for culture:
1 - People and team working in silos
2 - People on the ground feeling demotivated because the work they do isn't linked to the bigger picture
3 - Leadership teams and managers feeling overwhelmed - trying to do everything but not feeling like meaningful progress is being made
4 - A general feeling of everyone not really knowing what's going on from one day to the next.
Again this common cultural feel isn't created through malice but through a lack of structure. 50 years ago things changed slowly in comparison to today so the lack of a very specific guidance approach to setting goals didn't matter too much. Today it does and that's where 'Measure What Matters' comes in. Through real-life examples 'Measure What Matters' introduces you to the Objectives Key Results method of setting goals (Objectives from here on) in businesses. The book makes a solid case for the OKR method which very simply requires businesses and teams to set no more than 3-5 objectives each with clear measurable key results attached. I won't use this blog to go into the details of the method but I will highlight two of the most important features of the method that I believe when utilised give a business a mile-long cultural advantage over any business not using OKRs.
1 - Forced Prioritisation - Prioritising is HARD. It's hard because it forces leaders/teams to say no to a lot of things so they can pursue a few important things. Attached to saying no comes the fear that you might make a mistake. Due to this very human fear most companies, leadership teams and managers simply try to do everything - but it's this pursuit of everything that limits growth and creates a culture of stress and disengagement.
2- Employee Involvement In Objective Setting - I've lost count of how many teams I've run engagement workshops with. Without a shadow of a doubt, THE MOST COMMON low-scoring area when it comes to engagement is 'Being listened to and involved early'. One of the dangers of the digital age is you get so caught up in the latest trend that you lose sight of the basics. Look, flexible working and better employee packages are important, but from my experience, the thing most managers and employees are frustrated within their culture is not having the opportunity to share their ideas and influence the strategy. OKRs force you to address that. If you want a great culture you can't rely on the old way of setting and communicating goals. The old way was designed during the industrial revolution for factory-style businesses, it's ill-suited to today and bad for culture yet still widely adhered to. Measure What Matters make a clear case for the OKR method and shows you how to implement it in your business.
3 - Traction
Traction by Gino Wickman is actually written for small businesses but I think that leaders in all sizes organisations should read it. Why? Because even the biggest businesses are made up of multiple 'small businesses' and from my experience, most of them are lacking in the systems that create a good culture. Once again just having good people doesn't lead to a good culture. Certain things need to happen to keep everyone aligned and on the same page. Without these things being systemised no matter how good your people are human nature will get in the way and lead to these things being neglected ultimately harming your culture. Traction lays out a complete guidebook structure of the essential systems needed to keep everyone aligned in a team or business. Personally, I have found the most effective approach to use this book to transform culture is combining what's in Traction with the OKR process from Measure What Matters.
Perhaps the most impactful component of Traction that most if not all businesses will benefit from is the Meeting Pulse and Meeting Structure. Traction teaches teams/businesses to have a pre-planned pulse for meetings throughout the year ranging from a weekly check-in to a yearly planning day. A common theme I find in businesses is people hating meetings and feeling that they are a waste of time. What you need to understand is that it's not meetings that are a waste of time but poorly or non-structured meetings. Traction provides you with a very specific structure to solve this problem. Whenever I share the meeting structure with teams in workshops the results are instantaneous. Leaders feel relieved as they have a clear structure for meetings and team members feel excited because meetings instantly shift from boring to engaging.
4 - Essentialism
Before I begin to briefly summarise why Essentialism is an essential read to improve culture let me simply say this. If you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed at work read this book. If you are responsible for managers and worry that they are struggling with the stress of overwhelm get them to read this book. This might be one of the most significant yet under-discussed reasons for poor cultures emerging in any company. The people in leadership and management positions are so vision/career focussed that they take on and work too much. When your managers and leaders are working too much and stressed - no matter what your policies say - you create a culture of overworking and stress. People do as you do, not as you say.
Overworking isn't a logical thing, it's an emotional thing. Humans aren't hard-wired for balance. For most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers. When we were hunter-gatherers work, family, social and health were all rolled into one. It made sense for us to work as hard as we could in the time we had available until we were forced to rest/eat and socialise. The mindset of working hard for as long as possible still remains but the natural protections from overworking do not. Work and businesses are changing at an ever-increasing pace and people are connected to the digital world 24/7. This is leading to passionate driven people working themselves into the ground - from CEO to manager - in most companies. It's good to have people that will go above and beyond for the growth of a company. But it's no good for anyone or the company to create a culture where people don't switch off from work or feel able to enjoy work-life balance.
Understanding that and doing something about it are two different things. To really break the overwork demon that most of us have you have to create a paradigm shift in your mind. When the leaders in a company do this, others follow suit. As it's the leaders that tend to overwork the most and create this culture, it's you, the leader I highly recommend reading Essentialism to. Perhaps I can do no better of giving you an idea of what Essentialism is about than by sharing with you the Sub Title - 'The disciplined Pursuit of Less'.
It's my genuine belief that the best businesses, teams and people of the future will not be the ones that can do the most but the ones that can do less better.
It's never been more important to create a great culture. You know that. We live in a day and age where the power is in the employees' ball court. We also live in a time where businesses need more hard work and resilience from employees than ever before. If you want to nurture that leads its industry you have to create a culture where people want to and enjoy working hard for you. People and the media like to give off the impression that modern employees are demanding and entitled, that modern employees are only interested in the very best packages, the highest wages and the best flexible working policies. From my experience over the past 2 years, this isn't an accurate picture. What I see time and time again is hard working passionate people that want to be a part of something special. People that want to contribute and feel valued. Your business doesn't need the highest wages in the industry to be incredible. It needs the right culture. If you implement what I've shared with you in this post achieving that is easier than you might think.
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Mike Jones Better Happy Founder
Mike founded Better Happy in 2018.
He now works with a variety of businesses ranging from small accountancies up to large organisations such as Travelodge on improving employee happiness. Mike's vision and the vision of Better Happy is 'Every employee happy, every business thriving'