Great Teams Know Their Pulse

William Vanderbloemen is an entrepreneur, speaker, author, and CEO and founder of Vanderbloemen Search Group, an executive search firm serving churches, ministries, and faith-based organizations.

I’m a firm believer that great teams know their pulse. What do I mean by pulse? I mean that at any given moment, a great team can look around and think, “This is a great culture. I know it because of how I’m living out the culture based on clearly defined values and expectations, and I see how my peers are doing the same.”

On the other hand, teams that know their pulse can also see blind spots and identify potential areas for trouble with culture, especially at a leadership level. Great teams are constantly evaluating culture as a way of protecting it.

As a leader, culture is one of the most valuable investments you can make into the future of a company. As an employee, knowing if you’ll be a good culture fit will help you determine whether you’ll actually like staying at the job long term. Additionally, organizations with a strong, healthy culture can more clearly decide before the job offer is made whether someone is a good culture fit or not. If they’re not, no hard feelings and less bad hires made, which results in less turnover and less firing. It’s good for everyone.

How to Assess Your Organizational Culture

So how do you know if your organization has a healthy culture? With The Culture Tool, we help organizations assess their eight key indicators for cultural health. Here are eight basic questions you should be asking yourself on a regular basis to help assess the cultural health of your organization: 

  1. Do the leaders of our organization listen to input?
  2. If there is bad news to share, does our organization communicate it clearly to the right people?
  3. Do we give our team helpful feedback and evaluation so they know how they are performing?
  4. Does each supervisor understand their team members’ jobs and show them appreciation?
  5. Do we have an environment where team members can share opposing ideas or opinions?
  6. Is work-life balance modeled well by our top leaders?
  7. When a better way is discovered, can our team shift gears quickly?
  8. Are our people paid well for their work?
Examine the culture of the people at the top. If there’s a problem, let them know they have to make a change.
WILLIAM VANDERBLOEMEN

If you answered yes to the above questions, you probably have a pretty healthy culture. However, if you answered, “We’re not very good at that,” to most or all the questions, then you probably have a culture problem.

Another quick test for cultural health is to consider how often you hear people say, “That’s not my job.” Think about it. Do you hear that phrase a lot at your company? If people are communicating and collaborating, if they trust their leadership and own their work, and if the mission of the company lines up with their values, then all employees feel like part owners and take ownership for the responsibilities, successes, and failures. They feel like their organization matters to them instead of maintaining a “that’s not my job” attitude.

What to Do When There’s a Toxic Culture

You can attack each of the areas addressed in these questions individually, and that will work well if your culture is slightly off-track. However, if after answering these questions, you realize you have a serious problem and a potentially toxic culture—one that prevents your people from enjoying their work—then you have to take a more direct and dramatic action.

You have three options for making a radical shift in the culture:

1. You can shift people around in their roles.

You may have simply put people in positions they’re not happy in or not good at, and they need to be moved. For example, you may have people with excellent technical skills but no project management or people management experience, yet they were promoted to management positions. They don’t have the skill set to be proactive, manage many moving pieces, hit deadlines, or supervise and lead a team, and so you may have to put them into other positions where they can succeed with the skills they have.

2. You can examine the culture from the top.

Examine the culture of the people at the top. If there’s a problem, let them know they have to make a change. If that’s you, then you may have to take a hard look at your own behaviors. You can’t go through the motions of naming the full set of cultural values for your company, then act out a completely different set of values, and expect a healthy culture to manifest itself. That’s like building a really cool car body and throwing a cheap engine in it. It may look pretty on the outside, but it won’t run well.

Don’t overlook your responsibility in setting the pace of culture. You may not feel your actions are important, but, as you are a leader, people watch you and emulate your behavior. Culture is identified from the bottom—from the people within your organization—but it cannot survive if it’s not replicated and reinforced from the very top. None of my team expects perfection from me (which is good, because I’m far from perfect), but they do expect me to show consistent effort to reinforce our culture.

3. You can fire someone.

The third and most radical option is to fire someone—likely someone at or near the top of the organization. No matter how successful your company is, a bad culture can cause irreparable damage, and sometimes the only way to ward off a downward spiral is to remove the people who are introducing toxicity into the culture.

I wrote an article for Forbes about why United Airlines will survive its crisis after dragging a man off a plane and why Uber likely won’t survive its toxic culture crisis.  I received a tremendous amount of feedback on that article from people who agreed: If you have a toxic culture and make a sincere attempt to change it, you can save your company. But if you allow a toxic culture to fester, you put your entire company at risk—no matter how big it is.

When you look at our company as a faith-based organization and look at two of the arguably largest corporate disruptors in the past twenty years—Enron and Uber—you can see that if you don’t have a healthy culture, you don’t have anything. Before you set specific culture values for your company, make sure your foundation—the cultural values of the people at the top—is healthy.

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