Every company has a culture. Your brand is your company’s reputation, and your culture is its personality. Business leaders who are able to craft a culture that is aligned with what they do as an organization create a competitive advantage that is unique and can’t be copied. On the other hand, companies who don’t pay attention to their culture are setting themselves up for internal misalignment and chaos, which cripples their ability to deliver superior products and services for their customers.

So, how do you discover what your company’s culture is? First, it is important to know a few things that do not define culture. It’s not a foosball table in the break room or offering casual Fridays. It’s not benefits, perks, rewards, or punishments. All of these things are simply tools that reinforce your culture. Culture is the qualitative “stuff”—the complex set of behaviors and attitudes your employees display—that management responds to with praise and recognition or constructive conversations. Typically, these common behaviors and attitudes are established and modeled by a company’s owner or founder, and they are passed to other leaders, eventually permeating the entire organization. In other words, culture is the unwritten rules of the way things get done, which is being constantly reinforced or remolded with every interaction leadership has with the team.

Misalignment can be evidenced by small cracks in the foundation. It’s the tenured employee who pulls a new employee aside and tells them, “I know it says to do it this way in the handbook, but we actually do it this other way.” To prevent misalignment, management has to reinforce the culture with praise, benefits, or discipline…but that’s not enough on its own. In addition, management has to gain the buy-in of the key members of their team that other employees look up to—the non-management employees who are well-respected by their peers. These key employees have a unique ability to affect the culture by influence and example, and without them, management will always be fighting an uphill battle if they want to enact positive change.

Another way to foster cultural alignment is through sound hiring decisions. Hiring employees whose personalities and natural working styles match what you aspire to enact organizationally has a two-pronged effect. First, they will influence the employees around them in a positive way. Second, the new employee will be at an advantage to reaching their maximum potential because the way they need to work to succeed already matches the way they do things by default.

Broad cultural change needs to be implemented gradually. Think of a person’s habits and how they impact their health and happiness. Everyone who has made a New Year’s resolution to “get healthy” knows that it’s very difficult to make large changes in habits all at once. If you have never even jogged a mile yet decide to run a marathon next month, you’ll likely get injured and not reach your goal. The same principle applies to company culture if leaders try to enact large, all-encompassing changes very quickly. Eventually, the system rejects the changes and naturally attempts to realign with the status quo. The path to success lies in small, incremental changes to habits over time that build on one another.

Top-down and bottom-up cultural alignment gives companies competitive advantage in much the same way that a roster of talented athletes coupled with visionary management impacts a sports team’s chances at winning titles—one fails in the absence of the other.  When leadership sets the parameters and reinforces the unwritten rules of how a company operates, and well-respected leaders at all levels of the organization inspire and influence others to course-correct toward alignment to these principles, efficiency, engagement, and operational excellence soon follow.

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