Five culture blockers in small businesses

blog Apr 18, 2023

When it comes to the reasons a culture initiative may fail, it can’t be said that managers don’t try or don’t care.

Unless you have the wrong person as a manager.

In a McCrindle study, they surveyed 1,000 Australian middle managers to understand the experiences and beliefs about their role in culture, to help determine what strengthens organisational culture, and what may cause culture initiatives to fail. 

Almost all the managers (99%) advised that they believed that culture ‘definitely’ or ‘somewhat’ played an integral role in the overall success of a business, with a large proportion (74%) of those responding with ‘yes definitely’. 

Additionally, more than four in five believe that creating a healthy team culture is a crucial element of their role.

Interesting statistics, but why do some managers struggle to create the culture they want and instead tolerate the culture they have? 

From my experience of 35 years working with small businesses, I have found there are five key culture roadblocks:

1. Expectations are left unspoken 

They may not be written down and we may not always be able to articulate them, but internally we all carry a set of expectations of how we would prefer things to be, which informs our actions and responses. 

These expectations are often carried but not communicated, leaving team members attempting to read between the lines of the way things get done. 

I love the following quote I recently came across which sums it up really well:

“What isn’t communicated, is felt. What is felt, is interpreted. What is interpreted is often inaccurate.”

Get clear on your expectations for each role, document and then communicate on a regular basis.

When onboarding a new hire, meet weekly to check progress and to support them, for the first 90 days.

At that point, or even before, you will know whether they are going to make it, and if not, don’t fuck around and tolerate poor performance.

Do the right thing by the business and let them go.

So communicate, communicate, communicate…you can never over communicate!

The vast majority of relationship breakdowns stem from miscommunication, and business is no different.

Tip 1: Invest time with your team to discuss, agree and document expectations with respect to your culture. Setup a weekly meeting with your new hires for the first 90 days.

2. Behaviours are left undefined 

Many studies have found that the minority of managers agree that their business values are more than words, and that the behavioural expectations are clearly defined. 

Values on the wall may tell people what you hold in high regard, but clearly defined behaviours show people how these values are lived out every day.

“Behaviour is believable.”

Peter F. Drucker

Then once you define the expected behaviours, you must talk about them regularly, ideally every day.

Tell stories about team members living the values.

Include an agenda item in your weekly team meeting.

Don’t have a weekly team meeting?

Let me guess, you don’t have time?

What the fuck!?

Everyone has the same amount of time in a day and week.

You have not made weekly meetings a priority which is a dangerous approach.

Have a read of our blog about the importance of meetings.

Tip 2: Involve your team in a conversation to create a set of shared behaviours that you agree will help shape the culture you aspire to create in your team.  Then talk about them regularly with a structure to ensure this happens.

3. Communication is left unclear 

Only a third of people leaders see shared organisational language as an important ingredient for creating a healthy culture.

This is a very disappointing stat, but also means this is a valuable opportunity for your small business if you are part of the two thirds.

Creating a shared language can empower the people on your team to talk about expectations and behaviours in a way that is both consistent and contagious. 

Your language.

Your culture can become a language woven into the fabric of your daily conversations when you share phrases, memes, mantras and stories that are both memorable and meaningful, as noted above.

Tip 3: Ask your team how they would talk to others about your culture. What words, phrases or stories would they use? Consider how you can capture and amplify them.

4. Feedback is left unsaid

Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker wrote that ‘the culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.’ 

When critical feedback is left unsaid, cultural inconsistencies will thrive. 

This lack of accountability flows in every direction of the team. 

The conversation you don’t have may just reinforce the culture you don’t want.

Trust amongst your team is important to help having difficult conversations around feedback.

 What are you doing to build trust?

The 5 dysfunctions of a team, written by Patrick Lencioni, is a great resource to help build trust.

Tip 4: Get clear on the behaviours that will not be tolerated on your team, and empower each person on the team to address cultural inconsistencies when they see them. You must not ‘walk’ past them.

5. Appreciation is not recognised

A lack of reward and recognition contributes to an unhealthy culture in an organisation. 

There’s an old proverb that says, ‘No news is good news’

That’s bullshit in this context, as no news is actually very bad news for your team members. 

According to Gallup, you’re about twice as likely to be actively disengaged at work when your manager ignores you compared to if they focus on your weaknesses or negative characteristics. 

Take the time to meaningfully reward the behaviours that build the team culture you aspire to create. 

Include an agenda item in your weekly team meeting.

Ultimately, people repeat and replicate what they see recognised and rewarded. 

Tip 5: Make recognition more intentional by considering and then sharing how the celebrated behaviour connects to the team’s cultural aspiration.

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