Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Culture Shock

I used to work for a retailer that was well versed in corporate culture. It worked tirelessly to make sure that the culture was EVERYWHERE- in the store, in advertising, in our company policies, in press releases, etc. We were trained from Day 1 on the nuances of the culture and what that mean for us as employees. We were told to embody this culture and meet these core standards in order to succeed and move forward with the company. I loved the culture. I embraced it. I viewed the organization through their cultural lens and I expected those in leadership to do the same.

As my career progressed and the years went by, the company grew and evolved. With organizational growth came new policies and programs and new leaders to enforce them. Profits got larger and so did the egos. Certain company values were de-emphasized while others were thrown into the limelight.

For example, one of our values was to ensure employee happiness while another was to maintain profitability. During my orientation 10 years ago, I said that maintaining profitability was most likely the company's favorite value. I was met with shock and disdain from the regional trainer and told that our culture was dedicated primarily to employee happiness. Flash forward 8 years- my number one concern was maintaining profitability and if people could not handle their financials they were asked or ushered out of the way (even if they were never trained or were hired without the necessary skill set to be successful).

This example illustrates the effect of organizational growth on work culture. The values of the company were always there for everyone to see, yet the interpretation and application of policies to enforce those values changed overtime. As those changes happened, employees who held on to certain values were considered outdated and unwilling to grow with the company. Leaders who had given up their favorite values in order to move up in the company, showed disdain for employees who fought for the old ways and were not trying to move up in the company. This caused a severe culture shift in the company and created a subculture comprised of employees who longed "for the way it used to be and should be now" versus the emerging culture of "the new way."

I tell this story because I think that it is worth noting that an employee can love the culture at work and the culture may embrace that employee, but cultures can shift with organizational growth. Understanding the complexities of work culture, the effect of policies and leadership attitudes in regards to culture can have a tremendous impact on employee happiness and retention.

As leaders, we must work hard to foster the culture we strive to create and maintain. Listen to employees' concerns regarding organizational change, validate their issues with explanations of the shift and what is being done to counteract the loss of certain cultural aspects.

REMEMBER: Work culture is the one true competitive advantage, so treat it with care.

by Kristen Keyes

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