And good or bad, whether you like it or not, culture fuels your brand.

That's the fundamental point. 

The difference between a 'killer' culture that's seriously nailing the business and one that's essentially killing off its potential comes down to people, at all levels and in all their infinite roles and varieties. 

People make culture. And culture makes business, or just as easily, kills it off. 

It's why I love this short and insightful read (linked below) from the Bulldog Drummond team - one of my favourite Sunday morning 'go-to's' for great leadership insights and thought-provoking viewpoints. 

Companies with 'great killer cultures' hit the headlines all the time - for all the right reasons. They're a great source of benchmarks and criteria that inspire the rest of us.  

What troubles me, however, is that in too many businesses, we're still getting culture so wrong. In some cases, this is despite significant investment in developing a positive one. Because there's plenty of recognition amongst the business leadership community that good culture matters.  

What's the real cost of getting it wrong?

There was a great article published in the Harvard Business Review just over a year ago entitled 'Proof that positive work cultures are more productive'. While it was very US-centric, given the similarities of US work culture to ours here in the UK, the research findings on which the article was based are just as applicable and enlightening. 

For example, while the report covered a number of different aspects of culture and its impact on businesses, it reported that the cost of employee disengagement due to unhealthy cultural environments in the workplace included 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents at work, 60% more errors and defects in product and service delivery, 18% lower productivity, 16% lower profitability, 37% lower job growth and 65% lower share price over time. 

Fascinatingly, as part of the same research, a Gallup poll evidenced that even where companies had sought to improve culture by offering more perks and better salaries, employees were still voting with their feet and leaving these businesses, preferring workplace wellbeing to material benefits. 

And of course wellbeing comes from one place - a positive culture. 

By contrast, as Shawn Parr in the linked Bulldog Drummond piece points out, 'ignoring the health of your culture is like letting aquarium water get dirty.'

So what's causing the problem? Why aren't we getting culture right in so many cases?

Is it leadership arrogance? Indifference? Egotism? Incompetence? Impatience - results before people? Complacency? Apathy? Micromanagement? Maybe all or a mix of the above?

Why are so many of our leaders still so out of tune with their company culture? Or so dismissive of its importance when it comes to driving real and sustainable results? Are we simply valuing and rewarding the wrong work ethics and attitudes in our leaders; and perpetuating this by holding up these 'paragons' as the ideal role models to their aspiring successors? 

According to Rodger Duncan, it runs even deeper than that.

'The tyranny of unwritten rules'

Duncan points out in his Forbes article 'Culture at work: the tyranny of unwritten rules', that 'if you really want to understand your workplace culture, check the 'unwritten rules'. You won't find them published anywhere, because they're ...unwritten. But they can be the most powerful determinant of how people work together and the results they produce.'  

What are these unwritten rules? Duncan starts by listing the more obvious ones: dress codes, reserved parking spaces, the size of people's offices, their titles and grades. He moves on to what's heard and tolerated by leaders in corridor conversations between employees and the  'social' interactions at the start and end of meetings. 

What about the number of times that values are declared and yet not actually upheld? Or leaders assert a non-disciminatory, family-friendly or flexi-working stance - and yet the process of 'asking permission' to take holiday entitlement or comments made when an employee can't work late or has a family emergency, are demeaning and often lead to that employee feeling guilty and paranoid that absence will be treated as a lack of commitment, capability or competence. 

How many people do you know who work a 5 day week when they're paid for 4, or a 7 day week when they're paid for 5? Most of these aren't doing that for the love of the job and over time, they are very unlikely to be achieving their best work in such circumstances. 

The silent assassins

Unwritten cultural rules create and maintain these unhealthy workplace environments. They spread like a fungus and they are the biggest enemy when it comes to growth, talent retention, creativity and innovation. 

Often, they sneak in. They're disregarded, or noted but 'parked', in a prioritised race to hit targets, make turnover and demonstrate value. Invariably, they're not even noticed at all, until someone complains or something goes wrong. 

The impact of today's more transient and temporary workforce

As our workplace norms have changed from 'jobs for life' and long term positions, to spring boarding after only a few years from one job at one business to another at the next, many managers and leaders have become more instinctively (and understandably) selfish about demonstrating results and notching up revenue-related wins. 

After all, if you're out for CV fillers, bonuses and salary up-lifts, to stand you in great stead for the next step up the ladder (whether with your existing employer or a new one), you're going to target and pursue the easier wins. 

Getting culture right is too hard and it doesn't count towards individual rewards

It's far more difficult (and often thankless) to measure and demonstrate cultural successes, not least since even when measurable, these can often take a lot longer to evidence convincingly. And a bit like great reputations, a great culture can take a long time to build, but can be destroyed in matter of hours by a saboteur. So many managers deprioritise cultural success, especially when, in calculating bonus or promotion prospects, their own bosses don't pay this much heed anyway.

We all need to sell and to make profit, but if, for example,  your leadership has a single-minded focus on immediate sales results alone, the risk is that his or her attitude will rapidly drive cultural behaviours that are all about sales, at any cost. 

That cost is all too often the stifling of ideas, innovation and creativity, what's needed for talent retention, the creation of employee stress and of course the factors that the Harvard Business Review report identified. 

It's not my job

'I'm not the culture police. It's not my problem. Nobody believes in this values sh*t anyway'. 

A statement uttered by one of my fellow directors at a company I once worked for. His view? Someone else should be sorting out the 'HR nonsense'. 

Because culture is the fluffy stuff, right? 

Well of course it isn't. Culture fuels your brand. Parr puts it well: ' your brand is the single most important asset to differentiate you consistently over time, and it needs to be nurtured, evolved, and invigorated by the people entrusted to keep it true and alive.'

And if it's not looking healthy, you can't fix it overnight or approach it like a sticking plaster. More importantly, you can't simply pay lip-service to culture or values. 

Culture is a big, ongoing challenge.

Only really strong leaders and managers actually get it right - and if you watch closely, you'll see that they don't achieve great cultures on their own, they do so collaboratively, inclusively and single-mindedly (when it comes to stamping out behaviour or practices that are not compatible with employee empowerment). 

They step up. 

They don't step out. 

They spot the saboteurs. And they take whatever action is needed to either engage and persuade them swiftly - or to remove them equally as fast. 

Getting culture right requires bold and brave decisions of our leaders.  

In fact, achieving a great workplace culture is probably a far harder challenge than inventing something innovative or hitting a real stretch sales target. Yet we ritually reward the latter two objectives and under-recognise and underestimate the importance of the first one in achieving these more measurable performance indicators. 

What makes a great culture?

A 'passionately engaged', dynamic leadership...

A vibrant culture is organic and evolving. It is fuelled and inspired by a leadership that is actively informed about the realities of the business. These are leaders who genuinely care about the company's role in the world and who are passionately engaged,' says Parr. 

To make culture really work, it must be led from the top and those at the highest levels of the business should be properly held to account for it, by shareholders, by employees, by customers and consumers, by all of us. 

We need leaders who can properly identify and balance tangible with less measurable results, who are fully in tune with their workforce and who have the right levels of empathy and altruism, who reward the results that do not compromise business culture, and who aren't afraid to be the shield and the sword when bad behaviours creep in. 

...with zero tolerance for unwritten rules that pervert cultural balance & progress

If we're really serious about getting culture right, then as leaders and managers, we have to deal with these unwritten rules, bad habits, tolerance of inappropriate comments and unhealthy measurements that skew the real definition of success. 

Otherwise, no matter how brilliant the business plan, the people on whom the success of that plan depends, will never be sufficiently empowered or motivated to deliver it to its full potential, if at all.