Culture With a Little C: Don’t let it undermine your business

Culture with a little C: Don’t let it undermine your business – February 2010
By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Probably the most common definition of an organization’s culture is “the way we do things around here.” If you’re an executive describing your culture, you’re most likely referring to your mission, vision and values; and your core beliefs and what they represent. Something like: “We have a culture of accountability, high quality customer service, respect for employees and a commitment to community service.” And you, yourself, may exhibit and experience all of these characteristics. But what about the environment that your employees are living in each day? The “real” culture of an organization is only as big as a single supervisor’s domain, which could make an employee’s cultural experience the opposite of what you intend.

Curt Coffman (co-author of First Break All the Rules) defines the two-culture phenomenon in a recent article for Engagement Strategies Magazine. He calls one culture “big C:” the overall organizational culture encompassing mission, vision, values and strategy—driven by leadership. The other he labels “little C,” which is local and driven by individual supervisors and managers. Coffman compares the two cultures to an orchestra: the orchestral conductor versus the first chair of the woodwinds. Leaders put it all together into one harmonious performance, while managers oversee a group that contributes a small part to the overall effort. Both are essential, and both must be aligned. If big C represents levels of overall performance, little C controls individual levels of motivation, satisfaction, and stress.

Anyone who has worked under a tyrant in an otherwise great organization understands the concept of big- and little- C cultures.

The power of Little C

Say, hypothetically, someone is hired by a company with a reputation for fun and commitment to everyone’s comfort in sharing ideas and opinions, even with the CEO…and every employee is considered a hands-on contributor. The new hire quickly finds out that the little-C reality is a supervisor with a highly competitive, hierarchical personality who takes the credit for every idea and success generated by the team.

Or, take the case of a firm where the managing attorney chooses to do very little work personally and, instead, overloads the staff to the point of burnout. While others do the work, the managing attorney plays golf and catches up on reading. Junior attorneys become resentful and retaliate by taking long lunch breaks and leaving early. And deadlines aren’t met.

Unhappy teams are characterized by excessive absenteeism and turnover, turf issues, sabotage, and other behaviors that undermine the overall productivity and performance of an organization. Though virtually every organization touts an exceptional culture, few check to make certain that arrogant, bullying, punitive or lazy individual managers and supervisors aren’t perpetrating a reign of terror on their workgroups. Almost as destructive to overall performance are the supervisors and managers who play the “good guy” while subverting company goals by criticizing leadership or openly expressing negative attitudes about the company.

Little-C leaders who are aligned with the values and core beliefs of the organization and model the behaviors of the overall culture accelerate efficiency, productivity, and performance. The question is, how to you ensure this kind of alignment?

Double the impact of a great culture

Few people would argue that a great culture is described by a host of words like: trust, relationship, honesty, shared values, team spirit, support, encouragement, listening, appreciation, development, reward and more. Culture shouldn’t be allowed to just happen; otherwise supervisors and managers are free to create their own cultural environments. Great cultures are defined, nurtured and aligned through comprehensive communications, work processes, incentives and behaviors. “Culture management” is one of an organization’s most important and ongoing endeavors, at both organizational and small-group levels.

However you specifically define your culture, the first step in managing it is to hire the right people. Assess every serious candidate to determine whether you’re hiring someone who has a strong commitment to the organization and is receptive to change, a problem solver, and cooperative; or if you’re taking on someone with a misplaced need to win or who opposes new ideas, resists change and is critical of others. Check references thoroughly, and make absolutely certain that every hire is a strong fit with the overall culture of your organization, and a personality/character match with the direct manager and work group.

The second step is to cultivate professional development for both up-and-coming leaders and managers throughout the organization. Where do you want what kind of people and management styles in your organization, and how can they be aligned with the overall culture? Training in communications and management skills, including the softer skills like listening and mentoring, is an essential part of effective development programs. And every supervisor and manager should understand the mission, vision and values of your organization and be committed to modeling the behaviors that embody your culture, as should the entire executive team.

Step three is measurement and recognition. Performance reviews for supervisors and managers, as well as the executive team, must include measuring how well they model desired behaviors and the extent that their work groups align with the overall organizational culture. When success in these areas is recognized, it promotes a strong, cohesive culture.

Culture defines your employees’ work experience. When their overall experience aligns with the day-to-day, employees are more likely to be engaged. Organizations with engaged cultures perform at a higher level; their employees and their customers are more loyal; and they’re more competitive, according to Curt Coffman. More important, about the only thing your competitors can’t duplicate is your culture. It’s unique to your organization, and you can double its impact by making sure that your big and little Cs are aligned.

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is founder and CEO of TalenTrust, a Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) firm that helps companies hire the right people to accelerate their growth. TalenTrust LLC has offices in Lakewood, CO and Philadelphia, PA. Kathleen is president of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), Denver. Reach Kathleen at kvotaw@162.144.216.105 or 303-838-3334 x5.

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