We all have the ability to influence the culture of the organisation we work for. Although an organisation’s culture and the effectiveness of its reward system largely cascade from the top, and we make a conscious decision to align ourselves to the culture by applying for the job in the first place, there is a lot we can do to give meaning to that culture – or just create the equivalent of a micro-climate and a sunnier culture for our teams.
1. What is my company culture?
A company’s culture is, in essence, its identity. It’s how things get done in that workplace and, thus, includes formal and informal behaviours, spoken and unspoken rules and a full system of values. Company culture may be expressed visually in, say, the dress code. What a dress code essentially does is indicate what is expected from its people and, for example, whether formal or informal interactions are more appropriate. Another example of a combination of spoken and unspoken rules is what creates a ‘9-to-5’ culture versus a ‘flexible-hours’ culture; these cultures signal core values around work–life boundaries and what is expected to get things done. An organisation that is vocal about creating a feeling that everyone belongs will likely expect everyone to embrace a shared purpose in order to build a successful culture of belonging.
In large organisations, culture may be built on a common theme that is partly fragmented because it develops differently depending on teams or locations. This is very common when we compare the nuances of a culture in different practice areas or offices in law firms or when we look into the specific culture of an in-house legal department vis-à-vis other business functions.
Culture is widely recognised as one of the key elements that keep an organisation together. A company’s identity is dependent on the people who create and exist within the culture of the company. Think of a company with a strong identity that you have always liked: Does the culture of that company resonate deeply with its people?
2. Every interaction contributes to a company’s culture
New approaches to culture building tend to shift the focus to everyone who acts on, and ultimately contributes, to the culture.
If culture is ‘how we get things done’, a company culture is, indeed, a shared responsibility. While the definition of the main vision and the responsibility to transparently commend behaviours that support that vision mostly come from the top, there are many opportunities for everyone to meaningfully contribute to the company’s culture.
Think, for example, of what each of us can do about genuine inclusion. It is through the small things, such as waiting for everyone to be present and circulating information transparently, that each of us translates a statement into a meaningful action. If we don’t just say inclusive but mean inclusive, offering everyone a voice involves allowing everyone in our teams to express an opinion, independent of seniority. This ranges from lunchtime talks to major project deliverables.
If we mean trust and safety, each of us has a chance to offer nonverbal clues to signal support during difficult conversations and suspend judgement. If we mean people over processes, we can all ask questions and offer deep listening instead of filling out forms without raising our eyes when someone is speaking.
‘Corrections’ or ‘mini-corrections’ to a company culture that has gotten side-tracked are possible once we are clear and purposeful about the shared values we mean to reinforce.
3. So what can I do?
Within our teams and departments we have a huge sphere of influence. If we feel there is no true collaboration going on, there is probably a more productive alternative to complaining: When we look into the most collaborative pockets in our teams, we can explore different interactions to contribute to a collaborative culture.
Busy culture tends to pervade the legal profession. Again, while the primary responsibility to model a healthy culture that unties productivity from busyness is on senior members, placing good boundaries and creating good peer support can make an impact. Think about how you manage non-urgent phone calls outside office hours or how often you keep in touch while on holiday. Are you contributing to creating a chronic busyness culture or a culture of true collaboration? Culture is built on interactions; we are all part of those interactions.
If your values no longer fit with the company culture, wider considerations may be necessary. You may no longer positively contribute to adjusting behaviours that can go off track in every organisation but may end up working solo. You may wonder therefore: How big is the gap between your culture and your organization’s culture – and is the stretch between the two something you truly wish to accept?