In the 1970’s, a drafty brick building served as an assay office for a local mining company. During the mild summers, the building was a pleasant place to work. However, during the harsh winters, the temperature would either drop to the point where water spilled on the floor rapidly became ice, or the building became much too warm, and overtaxed heaters would fail.
The engineers and maintenance personnel cursed employees for turning up the thermostat. Employees would curse the engineers when the building became much too cold for them to work comfortably. A series of lock boxes were devised to keep anyone from changing the temperature. The engineers would break in, turning down the dial, and employees would break in, turning it up much too high.
Then one day, the bickering just stopped. Suddenly, the temperature in the building was just right. Engineers walked by the thermostat, satisfied when they saw the needle was pointing to an ideal temperature. Employees were not even tempted to mess with it, as temperatures were mild, and no ice formed on the concrete floor. What happened?
“I bent the needle,” Stan Huff, a company manager said. “I tweaked the thermostat needle to point at the temperature the engineers thought was ideal to not damage the heating units while maintaining the low end of the temperature employees felt was comfortable.” Both sides felt they had won, but both had really been deceived.
A lot of time is spent discussing workplace comfort. Not just temperature, but company culture and overall atmosphere. If one looks at office psychology from a historic perspective, it becomes obvious that with a few exceptions such as the cattle pen cubicles of the 1990’s, the office has always been set up to facilitate worker comfort with the knowledge that comfortable, happy workers were more productive.
But company culture is not a needle than can be bent: rather it’s both an attitude and an approach to work that must be established from the beginning, nurtured during the hiring process to make sure candidates “fit” with the company objectives, and monitored in current employees, especially management, to make sure it is being maintained.
Source: University of Southern California
The Founder and the Team is the Culture
First, the founder or the CEO is the leader of the culture. Especially with startups, they tend to hire people who share the same business values they do, even if they are diverse in other areas. This creates a base team that shares a culture.
As team members are added, the company culture expands to include the values of those individuals. The stronger the culture, the more the core adheres to those values, the more likely they are to be passed along to new employees. It isn’t quite that simple though.
Job skills can be taught, and learned. Fitting into a culture cannot. So while a basic set of job skills is important, even more important is the candidate’s ability to fit into the company culture.
The Hiring Process
With the staggering statistic that 46% of new hires quit or are fired within 18 months, and a larger percentage leave due to cultural mismatches rather than salary or other common employee issues, the interview process has more to do with personality fit rather than just a resume or skill set. Rather than asking the trendy questions like “Star Wars or Star Trek?” try asking about things that truly impact culture.
- Ask how the applicant handles and prefers to handle conflict. Better yet, present them with a scenario so there is not an answer that appears to be right or wrong, so the applicant doesn’t give you what you want to hear rather than the truth.
- Try to determine their preferred communication style, and even try to determine their emotional I.Q. Does it match the philosophy and maturity of your company?
- Give the interviewee feedback on their resume and the interview. See how they respond to negative and positive comments. Does the way they take feedback match with how your company gives it?
- Feel out how open and honest the candidate is being, and how open and honest they expect you to be. Does this mesh with your company culture and philosophy? Does your management style compliment the potential employee’s response?
Hiring the right person in the first place prevents costly turnover, not to mention the potential damage to your existing team and their morale. A strong company culture and one that is an active part of the hiring process reduces turnover rates by more than half.
Checking the Pulse
Has your company culture faded over time? There are several reasons this can happen, and while not all of them are 100% preventable, their impact can definitely be mitigated with the right strategy.
- Focus – It’s easy to be one big family when your company is small, and everyone knows everyone else. But when your company’s primary focus shifts from culture to revenue, your values can get pushed to the back burner.
- Identify and Expand your Culture – Identify your core values and determine how well you are communicating those to your employees. Rather than just evaluating how well, also evaluate how. Are you communicating in a way your employees relate to? And what happens when times are tough? When you go into survival mode, do your values suffer?
- Engage – Keep your employees engaged. Be sure that leadership is actually engaged as well, and structure company policies to continue to foster engagement.
Businesses can learn from those who have come before us, who have either kept culture alive through various tactics like those listed above, or have watered down their message and values over time, and lost the niche market they might once have had.
Customers care about the culture of where they buy from, not always because they are tuned into the specific dynamic of a company, but because the employees who are on the front lines reflect the company’s attitude, and they become the public face of the organization.
Culture can be influenced from the beginning. It can be nurtured during the hiring process, and it can be monitored and maintained. But it isn’t just a thermostat with a needle that can be bent to satisfy everyone in the room.
Still though, Stan might have been on to something. When everyone feels comfortable, they are more productive. What has your company done to inspire and maintain your culture? We would love to hear from you.
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