Company Culture

How to Build — and Maintain — a Positive Organizational Culture

January 18, 2022
November 7, 2023
Catherine Tansey 
Lattice Team

How we view the workplace — and what we value within it — has changed drastically over the past couple of years. The ongoing pandemic as a catalyst for this change naturally comes to mind first, but it’s far from the only factor at play. A national reckoning with and awareness of extreme acts of racial injustice and violence in 2020, indicative of this country’s long history of systemic racism, has also been a major shaping force. And the #MeToo Movement, beginning a few years earlier, has significantly impacted society, and workplaces across all sectors, as well — from entertainment, to politics, to Corporate America.

These events, tragedies, and movements have encouraged people to think twice about their work environment and its core values. As people have been reconsidering how their workplace supports their well-being and that of their team members, company culture has come into the spotlight. Today, a positive organizational culture is now non-negotiable.

Simply put, a positive organizational culture makes a company a great place to work. Organizational culture refers to the values, beliefs, and attitudes that serve as guiding principles for everyone in an organization. It’s part of the reason candidates are attracted to the organization, it supports business success, and it’s felt both tangibly and intangibly by employees every day. 

“Company culture is the why and how a company gets work done,” explained Emily Goodson, founder and CEO of culture and engagement consulting firm CultureSmart.

The Building Blocks of a Positive Organizational Culture 

While culture can seem nebulous, the ways it can be built and influenced are real and tangible. Here are three key components you need to successfully build and maintain a positive culture at your organization.

1. Craft clearly defined company values.

Whether you’re trying to create, build, bolster, or improve your organization's culture, creating clearly defined company values comes first. “You can’t change or support a positive organizational culture if you don’t know what you’re supporting,” said executive coach and strategic business partner Debbie Nathanson.

Goodson pointed out that many companies are quick to select buzzwords that sound good on paper, but don’t have anything to do with the company. “This is counterproductive,” she cautioned. “[Company] values are an employer’s statement of who they are. If you’re doing them correctly, your employees should be using them to make decisions, and your People team should be using them to build strategy.” 

Lattice’s own path to creating authentic and meaningful values reflects Goodson’s advice. After an offsite company retreat in 2018, Lattice had settled on the company values of empathy, effort, growth, and customer obsession. It was only after returning to work and with the passage of time that leaders realized these values actually meant little in support of the qualities and actions Lattice deeply cared for. So the team went back to the drawing board and came up with the values that still drive the great work employees do for Lattice every day — values that felt more aligned with the true purpose and mission of the company.

2. Prioritize belonging and psychological safety.

In order to have a positive organizational culture, you need employees to feel as though they belong, and for employees to feel as though they belong, you need a psychologically safe workplace. Coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety refers to the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, or concerns, or for making mistakes in the workplace.

In a blog post on their website, leadership development organization the Center for Creative Leadership stated that companies looking to build psychological safety should start with belonging. Goodson echoed this sentiment: “If people don’t feel like they belong, they won’t perform well. In order to be successful, they need to feel they belong,” she said.

Goodson explained that there are easy ways organizations can support a sense of belonging — they just take some intentionality and action. “If you want to create a culture where people feel like they belong, imagine the difference between saying, ‘We’re so happy you’re interviewing with us. Here are the various ways you can get into the office. Please let us know if you need any accessibility support services in advance of your interview,’ versus an individual in a wheelchair arriving and being unable to find their way in,” she said. 

3. Follow through on intentions with actions. 

A lot of companies take the time to establish values and think about their desired corporate culture, but fail to put in place the policies, initiatives, and resources needed to uphold it. “Building a positive organizational culture is about intention and action,” Goodson said. “You have to say, ‘We want to build a workplace where everyone belongs. We want everyone to have the support they need,’ and then put the policies in place and allocate the resources to do so.”

Nathanson agreed. “Organizations have to live the values they preach,” she said. For example, a company that prides itself on promoting from within needs to demonstrate a track record of doing so, as well as supporting employees in becoming eligible for promotions. Otherwise, the messaging falls flat. 

A lack of follow-through from the company in terms of policies and actions comes across as inauthentic and denigrates employee trust, and it can undermine your culture-building efforts. For example, say you’re a company that prides itself on employee recognition, but on engagement surveys, employees report a lack of manager praise or feedback. As a result, employees may believe the chance of receiving opportunities for advancement at the company is low, since they struggle to even get feedback. In turn, employees may be liable to seek employment elsewhere. According to Lattice’s State of People Strategy Report 2021, the belief that employees don’t have career advancement opportunities within a company is a main reason for voluntary turnover

Ongoing Efforts and Executive Support Are a Must

With company values in place, an emphasis on psychological safety and belonging, and policies that make good on the culture you’re espousing, HR teams and leadership must continue to support these building blocks of culture. Below are two main actions HR teams can take to nurture the components of culture they’ve worked hard to build.  

1. Continuously communicate your company values.

Communicating values is an ongoing process. Since values are a guide for decision-making and the cornerstone of a company’s current culture, Human Resources and leadership should be communicating your organization's core values throughout the employee lifecycle — from a candidate’s first experience with the company, like the job description or initial candidate screening, to all-hands meetings and manager-employee one-on-ones

Culture is synonymous with your employer brand, said Goodson. That means candidates are evaluating whether or not they’d like to work for your company from their first interactions with it. But similarly, organizations should be using their values as a lever to judge whether or not a candidate would be a good fit for the culture of the company. 

It’s important to note that we’re not talking about hiring for the “culture fit” of the mid- to late-aughts that came to signify little more than an excuse for companies to remain exclusionary. As Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, succinctly put it in a 2019 interview with the Wall Street Journal: “What most people mean by culture fit is hiring people they’d like to have a beer with.”

Rather, we’re talking about making sure a candidate’s values align with those of the company, and emphasizing your company’s values throughout the entire hiring process. This can help ensure that you’re hiring the best people for your team. And finding employees whose values align with the company’s vision and culture supports employee retention. The more in sync team members feel with the work their company is doing and how it’s doing it, the more likely they are to stay.

2. Outline behaviors associated with your company’s values.

When communicating values, it’s a good idea to be clear and specific. If one of your values is based on collaboration, leaders should be able to articulate what that means in practice, so employees know how to use this value as a framework for decision-making and to support your company’s culture. 

“Outline behaviors that are associated with your values,” Goodson advised. Returning to the previously mentioned collaboration example, businesses should go a step further and define what being a collaborative organization means to the company. For instance, Goodson suggested that leadership could ask themselves questions like, “Does it mean we pull in other teams? Does it mean the expectation is to always seek input?” to help articulate concrete behaviors associated with the company value of ‘collaboration.’

Especially today when so many employees are being onboarded remotely and working in hybrid settings, clearly defined expectations will further support employees in meeting company, managerial, and team expectations.  

Setting an Example

It’s not enough to set values and communicate them. For values to become true pillars of a positive work culture, leaders need to be embodying these traits and taking advantage of company offerings that support these values. 

“Role-modeling is one of the most important aspects [of building a positive organizational culture],” Nathanson said. “If you’re going to [hang] your hat on flexibility and work-life balance, leaders must be modeling that in some way.” 

Unlimited paid time off (PTO) is a good example of how this can go awry. We know that employees at companies with unlimited PTO policies tend to take less time off, not more. Much of that has to do with the culture. If employees don’t see their direct supervisor or upper management taking time off, they’re unlikely to do so either. 

“It wasn’t role-modeled at most companies because it wasn’t actually an authentic offering,” Nathanson said. “I like to believe it was meant to be an authentic offer originally, but it changed over time.” 

Leaders role-modeling values and other aspects of your organization’s culture signals to employees that it’s a genuine offering. Let’s say you work for a company that preaches flexibility as part of their positive workplace culture; imagine the impact of your boss signing off at 2PM every Wednesday to join their mother in playing Bingo at her retirement home. 

“You’re going to feel more comfortable taking advantage of company offerings when you see leaders modeling that behavior,” Nathanson noted. Witnessing a direct supervisor taking advantage of company offerings and role-modeling behavior that supports the company’s values and culture gives employees the go-ahead they need to do so themselves. 

Data Is King

Measuring culture gives Human Resources the cold, hard data they need to show the impact of a positive company culture on the organization’s bottom line. Metrics also provide a way to measure which initiatives are working — and which ones aren't. Here are two effective methods HR teams should be using to keep a pulse on company culture.

1. Start with employee engagement surveys.

Employee engagement surveys give HR a baseline understanding of the culture that’s in play at an organization. Through engagement surveys, Human Resources can learn about employee satisfaction and employee experience, and can gather data to better gauge how employees are experiencing the workplace. Employee engagement surveys work best when done at a regular cadence, and research conducted by Lattice Advisory Services found that more often is better. Ideally, businesses should survey employees as frequently as possible, or at regular cadence, like once a quarter.

2. Expand on the data with focus groups.

Focus groups give People teams a chance to discover greater context than employee engagement surveys offer. “Surveys are a great way to track progress, but you don’t get the nuance you get from a conversation with someone [during a focus group],” Goodson noted. 

Focus groups of between 6-12 people are a good size so individuals feel comfortable talking, but the group still feels intimate. Goodson recommended pulling questions with the highest and lowest scores across the engagement survey, and then digging deep on where the employees think the company is doing well and where it needs improvement during focus groups. 

“I’d use the ‘Stop, Start, Continue’ framework [what practices employers should stop doing, what new ones they should introduce, and what they can continue doing] to find out answers to those questions,” Goodson recommended. “You get really good data that way.” 

A positive culture makes a company a great place to work. Employees who feel psychologically safe, supported, and aligned with your company’s values are more likely to do excellent work and stay with the company. Moreover, creating a positive organizational culture is just the right thing to do for your people. 

“People spend the majority of their lives in their workplace, and I’ve always felt if I were the Head of People at a company, [I’d] have a responsibility to [the employees],” Goodson said. By putting in place the building blocks of a positive organizational culture and then investing the resources to support and bolster your initiatives, HR teams can foster a positive company culture where employees — and the business — thrive.