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Culture: More than Just the Word of the Year

“Culture” was the 2014 word of the year according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.   This means the word culture saw the most significant increase in the number of lookups from 2013 to 2014. 

The term culture is one that is discussed and continues to be discussed at great length among the business community.  We all know that culture is important and if you serve customers (which let’s face it, almost everyone has customers!) we hear the importance of creating, developing and instilling a customer-focused culture.  Easy to say, harder to do.  Defining culture is the first place to start. 

According the Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition of culture is as follows:

Source: www.merriam-webster.com

Helpful?  Yes.  However, I think most of us realize that knowing the definition of something is useful, but often leads to more questions than answers, as is often the case when it comes to culture.  The challenge is that an organization’s culture is harder to define and quantify than other aspects of the organization or contact center.  Establishing and measuring service levels or customer satisfaction and quality monitoring scores are all top priorities for the contact center. But it’s just as critical that we get our arms around what our culture is and/or what we want it to be because culture determines how hard and how happily reps work, who gets credit for what, how excellence is rewarded and ultimately what the customer experience looks like.  So it is probably no surprise, that in a recent survey by Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company) 86% of C-Suite executives and 84% of all managers and employees said culture is critical to their organization’s success.  

I believe most of you reading this would agree with these findings and would like to have a culture (if you don’t already!) that fosters engaged employees, promotes delivery of exceptional customer experiences and ultimately leads to healthy business results. 

So where do we begin?  Here are a few questions to consider and answer:

1. Where are we now?
    a. What is the culture within our organization?
    b. What is the culture that exists within my team or work group?

2. Where do we want to go?
    a. How much and what can we change?

3. How do we get there?

The focus of this article is on the first question, “where are we now?”  “What is our culture?” and that takes us right back to the definition of culture.  While the Merriam-Webster definition was a good start, I suspect it may have caused you to think of more questions than answers.  Questions like:  What is this thing we refer to a “culture”?  Is it tangible, definable, can we see it – recognize it? How do we know what ours is? 

Your organization's culture does not necessarily reflect the espoused list of values developed at an offsite meeting by the executive team and framed on the wall in your lobby. These are ideals. What you strive to be as an organization and what values you hope to endorse, may be different from the values, beliefs, and norms expressed in your actual practices and behavior. We expect alignment between the values and culture, but that may not always be the case.

The culture we “claim” (i.e. vision, mission, values), may not be the true culture of the organization.

In reality, what management pays attention to and rewards is often the strongest indicator of the organization's culture. This is often quite different than the values it verbalizes or the ideals it strives for. Think for a minute about the organization in which you work. Does your management encourage or discourage innovation and risk taking? Does it reward employees for coming up with new ideas and challenging old ways of doing things or punish those who challenge established norms and practices? Do mavericks fit in or do they get pushed out? Is rapid change the norm in your organization or does management vigorously protect the status quo? Does the organization truly value excellence or is the mentality simply "just ship it"? Does management pay attention to the well-being of its employees or is it completely focused on task performance and profits? Does a high level of employee participation characterize the culture or does senior management make most decisions?  Answers to these questions will assist in defining your organization’s culture.

Culture comprises the deeply rooted but often unconscious beliefs, values and norms shared by the members of the organization.  In short, our culture is “the way we do things around here”.

Keep in mind that the culture of your organization as a whole may or may not be the culture of your own contact center or even your own team.  It is often the case that when a group of individuals work closely together they form their own culture, their own “way of doing things around here.”

So as you ask yourself the questions about your organization’s culture, ask those same questions about your own contact center and/or the team you manage/supervise.

In addition to the above questions, here are a few tools/exercises to help you define your own culture or get more clarity around it…

Exercise #1:  Ask:

• What 10 words would you use to describe (and here you can insert –organization, team, etc. whatever level you are trying to get at)  Examples might include:  Fun, bureaucratic, fast paced, energized, innovative, customer driven, youthful, intense/serious, messy, neat, old, cutting edge, conservative, proud and so on.

Exercise #2:  Ask:

  • What’s really important? Answers might include:  The customer, the bottom line, the numbers, productivity, quality etc.
  • Who gets promoted? Answers might include:  Best performers, next in line, best politicians
  • What behaviors get rewarded? Answers might include:  Making your numbers, helping a team member, taking a risk, taking ownership of a customer problem etc.
  • Who fits in and who doesn't?  Answers might include:  Those that can’t follow rules, risk-takers, multitaskers etc.
  • How are decisions made? Answers might include:  By management only, with input from employees etc.

The 10 words and the answers to the above questions help define how we work and play together.  However it is critical to keep in mind that the words we use to describe the organization and/or contact center’s culture only become the “true” culture when those words are turned into action!  Culture evolves differently depending on how it’s expressed within the organization and/or contact center.

For example, customer-focused in one organization and/or contact center might mean treating all customers the same. In another center it might mean segmenting customers and providing a higher level of service to those with the greatest value.  We as managers need to be clear about what these “words” mean in terms of behaviors and actions.

At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words.  Culture truly is more than a definition or a set of words and intentions.  Culture will always be defined by action!