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Company culture is key to success – but how can you make it work for you?

Our organisational psychologist gives her expert view on how to pin down your culture, then use it to benefit your business and your team

Heather Bingham
24 June 2021

Business owners are increasingly familiar with the words “company culture”, but when it comes to assessing your own culture, especially when your firm is new, it can be hard to know where to start – and that’s where the role of an organisational psychologist comes in.

I previously mapped the culture of the alternative lender BOOST&Co, Growth Lending’s sister company, to ensure that the team grew in a healthy and positive way. The culture that was captured has been celebrated and reinforced ever since, and has powered the brand’s significant growth, so I was keen to repeat this work with Growth Lending.

To capture a firm’s company culture, I interview every member of the team to discover its three elements, as defined by Edgar Schein, a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Schein says that to understand an organisation’s culture, you must assess three elements: artefacts and behaviours, espoused values, and assumptions.

Artefacts and behaviours are anything visible, from the dress code to the prevailing sense of humour. Espoused values are what an organisation says about itself, including its mission statement and what it chooses to put on its website. Assumptions are the unspoken rules and taken-for-granted conduct of those in the team.

Which words define your culture?

The questions I like to ask deal with the past, present and future of an organisation. I start by asking what attracted the employee to the company and conclude by asking what they are most looking forward to. I make extensive longhand notes, so that I can examine not just what was said, but how it was said and the language that was used.

When I don’t know the leaders of an organisation particularly well, I have to conduct a “factor analysis” of my notes. This involves underlining all the interesting words and counting them to test how applicable they are across the business. With Growth Lending, this level of forensic examination wasn’t necessary, because the company culture is strong throughout the team.

The words that leapt out at me were “collaborative”, “entrepreneurial”, “fast”, “flexible”, “innovative”, “motivated”, “positive”, “responsible”, “solution-driven” and “supportive”. I thought about what else I had observed, but which hadn’t been spoken, and added “authentic” and “brave” to the list.

Check that your findings stack up

The next step was to interrogate the list. I knew our team would recognise these words – they gave them to me, rather than vice versa – but I also had to think about how the words interacted. Did they overlap? In some senses, yes, so I needed to consider whether this was a good or a bad thing. Did any of these words work against each other? They could have done – for example, “fast” and “responsible” – but within our team, the two go hand in hand.

If you do need to make adjustments, you must establish what you have before you can change it. Edgar Schein was clear: an organisational culture, especially when first captured, is what it is. For example, if you don’t want people to be “flexible”, you must recognise what “flexible” means for the organisation and then alter the meaning by changing what people are doing. Just changing the word to “resolute” in your culture map won’t make it so.

Next, I depict the culture visually – not because I’m a wannabe graphic designer, but so that I can interrogate it more closely. I realised at this point that one important, but unspoken, word could be missing: “friendly”. The team are a tight-knit bunch who regularly visit the pub after work and count their colleagues as friends.

I had to consider if the words I’d chosen suggested this connection or whether it needed to be stated, but I felt that “supportive”, “authentic”, “positive” and “collaborative” implied close links. If you aren’t likely to be found in the pub after work, that mustn’t and doesn’t preclude you from being part of the team. How you operate at work is all that matters.

Get everyone on board, from the top down

The final step in capturing a culture is testing it with the group. To be authentic, an organisation’s culture must be represented from the top of the business to the bottom, so I began by presenting it to Lauren Couch and Kristi Oliver, Growth Lending’s managing directors; then to Jack Trowbridge and Arabella Marsden, the company’s senior leaders; and finally to the rest of the team.

After each stage, I re-examined the work and the way in which I was presenting it: 80% of a culture capture is getting it right, but if you don’t spend the final 20% ensuring accuracy and acceptance, it is pointless. Our employees recognised the qualities I had identified, so I am confident that we have an organisational culture to celebrate and develop.

Hire candidates who fit into your culture

As I previously saw at BOOST&Co, a strong company culture can stimulate growth. To attract the right candidates to Growth Lending, I have developed a job description that tallies with our qualities and a suite of interview questions that test candidates for their fit; our team will be trained to interpret their responses rather than work to a fixed idea.

For example, if we ask a candidate to tell us about a difficult period at work, we are not listening for a particular type of project or a specific form of self-motivation. We are looking for people who remain focused, work positively to find solutions and club together when they are under the cosh, wherever they have worked and whatever the issues they have faced.

Reinforce company culture in everything you do

We are tweaking our performance appraisal and goal-setting process to ensure that it reinforces our organisational culture and recognises individuals who live and breathe our qualities. We are also weaving these into our skills-related training sessions, as well as tying them into our leadership and coaching programmes.

A strong organisational culture that runs from top to bottom, and side to side, removes a huge number of stressors when it is used and reinforced appropriately. It can also contribute significantly to a firm’s success, so I am sure that the strong, positive company culture I discovered at Growth Lending will benefit the team in the years to come.

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