Why you need to build a winning corporate culture

By Harvey Mackay

Twenty monkeys wearing shock collars were placed in a room. In the middle of the room was a pole with bananas on top. Every time a monkey climbed up the pole to grab a banana, it received an electric shock. Soon the monkeys stopped climbing the pole.

Then a new monkey without a shock collar was introduced to the cage, and one of the original monkeys was removed. The new monkey immediately climbed up the pole to grab a banana, but the other 19 monkeys pulled it down numerous times until it got the message that the bananas were off limits. This experiment went on until all 20 monkeys were swapped out from the original ones. They all collectively knew the bananas were forbidden, even though none were shocked. They had created a culture of fear.

One of the hottest words for leaders today is culture. Culture affects perception. It influences behaviour, and it shapes our personalities. Creating culture is a concentrated, conscious choice.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, said, “If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.”

He makes it sound so easy.

Creating a positive, high-performing, people-focused, result-oriented environment does not just happen. It takes a tremendous amount of work and soul-searching and cannot happen without both. It is what separates the highest performing organisations.

Every company has a culture, whether it is intentional or unintentional, desirable or undesirable. Managers and leaders influence culture by the attention they give it. Those who focus on culture tend to create a vibrant environment, while those who ignore culture end up with a struggling and confused workplace.

Hence, leaders must make creating a positive culture a priority. Employees recognise the difference between a workplace where they want to come to work, feel valued, and know what the company stands for. Customers notice as well. 

Leadership author Glenn Van Ekeren observes: “Culture is movable, fluctuating, shifting. It requires continual attention, nurturing, direction and adjustments. Culture doesn’t function well on automatic pilot. It flourishes when leadership is continually passionate about infusing culture with their influence.”

Van Ekeren said you have to be there for people and demonstrate that you have their back and best interests at heart. He mentioned the conversation between Winnie the Pooh and his dear friend Piglet. Piglet crept up to Pooh from behind and said, “Pooh?”

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

In an organisation with a healthy culture, employees should never have to ask to be sure. You cannot build a culture if you are disconnected from your people.

Culture at a company is everyone’s responsibility, but leadership is heavily responsible for its development. Employees and middle managers will learn what their bosses permit and reward and will enforce it on each other. And if management fails at any point, it requires immediate proactive effort to mitigate the damage.

So how does an organisation develop a desirable culture? I can tell you what I did when I started my company, and we continue to do six decades later.

Know why you are in business. What is your purpose? Set goals, and make them known throughout the company, so your employees understand what’s important to your business.

Hire thoughtfully and carefully. Ask questions during interviews and make your position regarding expectations crystal clear. I believe in being completely upfront about what we need, because I don’t want to waste my time or theirs training someone who isn’t a team player. And I don’t hesitate to fire an employee who won’t comply.

Lead by example. Staff should look forward to coming to work and doing a stellar job. Recognize and reward people for their efforts. Give credit where it is due. And absolutely be the first to admit when you’ve messed up. Then let folks know how you are going to fix it.

Love what you do. I know I may sound like a broken record, but if you don’t love what you do, you will have a hard time doing it well. Your attitude will show whether you are just in it for the money, or if you really want to make a difference.

Back to the monkeys. Why have a bunch of bananas if no one can ever have one? Your corporate culture will only thrive if the rewards are not only visible but attainable. 

Mackay’s Moral: A team culture is a living organism. Feed it and watch it grow.

●Mackay is an American businessman and author

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