Culture has been a buzz word in the HR industry for as long as I’ve been a part of it. We’re all familiar with the quote attributed to Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The truth of course is that great organisations need both a clear and well defined strategy, and the organisational culture which enables delivery of that strategy.

Speak to almost any business leader these days and they will tell you that culture is a strategic priority for their business. They may even go as far as to describe what they believe the organisational culture is like.

Perception versus reality

However, what happens when the culture the leaders of an organisation believe they have is not actually the culture which is alive and being experienced amongst the grass roots of that business? With employees becoming increasingly vocal on social media where they are dissatisfied with an organisation’s culture, what should HR professionals and senior leaders do when there is a clear and increasing culture gap within their business?

The first thing to do is to look at the cause of that gap. In my experience, the most common issue is that leaders have attempted to enforce a culture. It is critical to understand that culture cannot be forced. Culture is organic, a collection of behaviours and approaches which grows over time with your business based on the people you choose to employ within it. Your managers will hugely influence your culture, based on the behaviours that they choose to accept, to reward, and to call out.

A top down approach

What I have often seen happen is that a senior team decides on a collection of values which they believe defines their organisational culture. They publish these values on their company website and announce them to the organisation. That’s it. No time spent discussing with employees, no effort made to really embed them. They are a simple statement of fact.

Of course, when you choose to do that, your culture gap actually increases. Frustrated employees, who believe management is out of touch with reality, are likely to push back with behaviours which ironically move you further away from your desired cultural state, rather than closer to it.

Spotting the symptoms

When it comes to culture gaps, the first thing to do is to identify whether you have one. The symptoms will likely be obvious. Disengaged employees, destructive behaviours and a lack of engagement with or knowledge of any identified values are all clear signposts, particularly when viewed in contrast to the statements from leadership describing the alleged culture of the organisation.

Where that’s the case, then it’s time to take action. The number one most critical thing you need to do is to talk to the business. And that’s not to talk at them, but to talk with them. You can’t tell an organisation what your culture should be. You simply can’t. Culture isn’t something you dictate, it’s something which evolves. What this means is that it’s about making a team effort to evolve what might be a destructive or an apathetic culture into a culture which supports the delivery of the business objectives.

Defining success

Exactly how you do this is up to you. You might set up task groups and work with cultural ‘champions’ amongst your employees, to develop initiatives designed to encourage the behaviours you are looking for. You might ask the employee body to lead with developing a set of values which they feel embody the culture of your business – values which provide practical guidance as to how to close the culture gap. Some organisations bring in an external facilitator to help close the gap between management perception and organisational reality. My personal view on this is that, wherever possible, you are far better served to carry out this exercise with someone internally who already understands the idiosyncrasies of your business, but the use of a facilitator can indeed be an effective exercise to start to accelerate the closing of that gap.

Once you’ve identified your gap, and agreed the actions you are going to take, you need to define your success criteria. Too often, organisations acknowledging a culture gap rush into action without ever stopping to consider what success looks like. This can mean wasted time and energy is ploughed into untargeted activities, and can, if you’re not careful, even exacerbate the gap. Think about what success looks like, and build in regular review points to ensure you’re on track.

The responsibility of all

From there, it’s about ongoing commitment from every single senior stakeholder in the business to the actions you have agreed on. There is a fallacy that culture is somehow the remit of HR. A successful and productive culture is only achieved by all business leaders committing to drive it forwards.

And, equally as important, by an acceptance that culture cannot be forced. Culture is something which evolves as a result of the behaviours of everyone within the business. We need to give our employees ownership and accountability for those behaviours, and see them as the solution, not the problem. A great culture has managers and employees working together, not apart. Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.