How to build an intentional culture

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This is the first in a three-part series on building an intentional workplace culture. What tips and suggestions do you have for building a better culture? Join us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn this week to share your thoughts. –Andrea Davis, Managing Editor

Commentary: When most people think about culture, they focus on perks and policies –  like dress code, the framed mission statement in the lobby and whether there are ping-pong tables in the office. But while these can be clues to a company’s culture, they don’t define it – and they certainly don’t create it. Instead, culture is the collective values, norms and beliefs of the organization – also known as “what it’s like to work here.” It’s the backdrop for everything that happens at your company and the day-to-day experience.

And here’s the clincher: culture is the single most important factor in your organization’s success or failure. Because it enables strategy. So if your culture doesn’t align with and support strategy, your strategy will fail. Period.

What does it mean to align culture with strategy? It means those collective values, norms and beliefs shape employee behavior and work with – not against – what you’re trying to achieve. For example, at Limeade, we’re all about improving health and well-being. So our culture supports that by allowing people flexibility in how, when, and where they work; taking tons of walking meetings instead of hovering in conference rooms; and eating healthy throughout the workday. But the best part about aligning culture and strategy is that you see it in your business results:


The impact of culture goes beyond growth and profit. understanding your culture and being intentional about it allows you to engage employees, improve satisfaction with customers, develop a leadership framework for strategy development and communication, ensure the company is well-positioned to meet future business objectives and more.

So how can you build an intentional culture in your organization? The key is to approach it from an architectural model – based on being proactive and interventionist – instead of an evolutionary model, where culture is allowed to be shaped by random events. There are nine steps to building an intentional culture - we’ll cover three of them here, with the following steps covered in upcoming posts.

1. Articulate what the culture is and why it matters. Don’t be afraid to openly address culture with your employees – how it’s defined, what’s expected of people and how they can “live” the culture. Make sure employees understand that culture enables strategy – and that it’s the most important factor in your company’s success or failure. Then explain your business strategy and how your culture aligns with it. For example, if you’re building collaboration software, your culture should be collaborative as well: participative rather than top-down when it comes to making decisions, flat rather than hierarchical, open-concept instead of separate offices behind closed doors. You should be using collaborative software to get work done, and keeping remote workers looped in through instant messaging, video calls and more.

2. Set clear behavior expectations for employees, managers and leaders. This doesn’t come from a tagline – it comes from specific employee behavioral expectations that outline “how things are done around here.” Is the culture you need to have numbers-focused or quality-focused? Formal or relaxed? Relationship-saving or truth-telling? These and other cultural attributes will help you set expectations around attitude, how employees work together, interactions in meetings and communications (emails, presentations, etc.). These expectations should then be written in simple “action” phrases that make it clear exactly what you expect employees to do.

3. Educate employees, managers and leaders on culture and expectations. While leading by example is the most important way to educate people about culture and expectations, a “Culture 101” brown bag session is a great addition to your toolbox. Include it in new hire orientation, as well as on a quarterly basis – and make sure to offer it when people can attend, whether that’s at lunch or several times throughout the day to accommodate shift workers. Look for ways to go “deep” on each attribute of your culture you want to reinforce, so employees truly understand what each attribute means and how they can improve their ability to live it.

Next time, we’ll dive into the three steps in building an intentional culture: 1) setting accountability and metrics, 2) empowering culture champions and 3) communicating about your culture.

Dr. Laura Hamill, Ph.D., is chief people officer with Limeade.

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