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When workplace feels like home

Achal Khanna |

We have a very family like culture,” said an HR head of 100 crore enterprise. She didn’t elaborate but the gleam in her eyes indicated how pleased she was with the description. I sat there wondering if it is even a good thing. I furthered questioned myself about how many high performing companies I have seen having “family like” culture.

Can we be a family and still be professional? Will this type of culture enable “winning” and excellence? In my quest to understand this better, I asked people what they mean when they are referring to their culture to be familial. Mostly, they were implying that there exists a great camaraderie between teams. Sometimes they were also saying that they are in their comfort zone, implying that they don’t get pushed so often beyond their normal boundaries.

But it is never enough to just care about employees. It might not be wise to hope that the care and warmth will translate into productivity. It is true that companies do not know how a certain culture impacts performance.

The focus somehow is on creating a feel good factor instead of a winning culture. Being amorphous — it is hardly on the agenda in strategy meetings. Where targets and profits rule the minds and the discussions, there isn’t any space for softer things like culture. Well, this “soft thing” is so capable of crippling strategies and restricting productivity, if not properly aligned. Simply aspiring for family like culture (which may or may not be enabling the strategy) is not enough. So should we replace the focus on establishing a harmonious working environment with more stringent individualistic performance driven standards?

No, the rule is to start with identifying why and how the culture is getting shaped. Identify the nuances which are compelling the culture to be described in a certain way. Then, evaluate if those nuances are supporting the defined strategy. Identify the ideas, thoughts, actions which the organisations no longer want to be associated with. Then this follows the difficult part of converting the favourable and aligned ideas into observable behaviours. And these need to be in a language that is understood by all.

Write them as your values and competencies which are aligned to your strategy. Indigo Airlines is a classic example to understand how the key behaviours are institutionalised to enable the strategy. Their campaign about always being on-time was brought to life by their flight attendants, who cleaned aircraft between flights, reducing time at the gate and improving on-time performance.

The company’s values reinforced many of the elements that were critical to their strategy, such as keeping costs low. As a result, Indigo is consistently among the most profitable airlines in the India.

The way favourable behaviours are institutionalised and irrelevant things are discouraged, it holds the key to winning. This is how we can go about building a winning culture:

  • Communicate, communicate and communicate: Define the culture through values and competencies. Instil them in the DNA through everything you do. Communicate using induction programmes, emails, town halls, and posters to help each and every employee understand the behavioural expectations. Tell them, what it means when you say we value transparency. Talk about exact behaviours they must express when they are expected to demonstrate transparency.
  • Align systems and processes: Make your performance management system speak the same language. Accountability and achievement could not be concepts. Set high performance standards, stretch goals and publicly reward their achievement. Ensure that everyone is held accountable for their key responsibilities. Leaders owning up to the consequences of their decisions set an example for the organisation to follow.
  • Demonstrate consistency: Culture cannot be shaped with inconsistency. Every effort, every initiative needs to be consistently deployed or built upon. Any retraction or exception will be perceived as an option or choice to be adopted. It is not wise to expect a re-shaping or change the culture overnight. But every small step needs to be showcased till it becomes the second nature of the organisation.

(The writer is chief executive officer, SHRM, India)