Over time, every company develops a “corporate culture”—a collective personality that blends the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals, and myths that characterize the company and define its nature. While companies don’t define culture (employees do) they can and should be managing it. That means taking steps, based upon a shared agreement about what you wish your corporate culture to be, to ensure alignment and support of the desired culture through actions and words. Consequently, your desired corporate culture should inform and drive the messages you share with everyone in your organization.
Characteristics of a Great Culture
What are the areas that need alignment? In an article for Harvard Business Review on “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture,” John Coleman notes that “each culture is unique and myriad factors go into creating one.” He identifies six common characteristics of great corporate cultures. Those components provide a useful framework for thinking about corporate culture and, importantly, about how leaders can use communication to help support a desired culture.
A vision is a reflection of where the organization is headed. A strong vision statement is aspirational and offers staff, and all stakeholders, a long-term, lofty goal to aspire to. Healthcare organizations are, typically, mission- and vision-driven organizations. That means that you are likely already communicating your mission and vision to employees. What you may not be doing, though, is:
- Recognizing that your vision must be directly aligned with your desired corporate culture
- Ensuring that any communication related to culture reflects your vision
Values are also important in defining culture. As Coleman writes, “While a vision articulates a company’s purpose, values offer a set of guidelines on the behaviors and mindsets needed to achieve that vision.”
Again, it’s highly likely that you are already communicating your values to employees. Keep in mind, though, that your actions—and the actions of all leaders in your organization—communicate as much about your culture, if not more, than the words you use. That means that leaders in your organization, including executives, physicians, and all other information leaders, must be culture-supporting if you wish to build a strong culture.
This is where the rubber really meets the road. Just as values help drive an organization toward its vision, practices reflect the way an organization manifests its values. You can say you value innovation all you want, but what do you actually do to encourage innovation? This is the old “walk the talk” conundrum. How are you doing with that?
What’s needed is a focus on both the walk and the talk. Never take for granted that your employees or providers will automatically note and recognize your culture-supportive practices. You need to explicitly help them make the connection. One way to do this, for example, would be ensuring that whenever you cover an event or an issue in your company newsletter or e-letter, you explicitly make the tie back to culture. For example: “Our participation in this year’s United Way drive supports our strong culture and focus on giving back to the community (which might be one of your values).” That’s a positive way to ensure practices support culture.
On the flip side, you also need to make sure that you avoid potential negative cultural impacts from practices that are not supportive. For instance, if your desired culture is one of service excellence, poor service of any kind should not be tolerated. Any practice that does not explicitly support your culture serves to tear it down.
The people of an organization can make or break a company culture. This illustrates the importance of hiring people who support your culture and quickly addressing any issues related to their behavior or performance that are not culture supportive. It matters.
One powerful communication practice here is to highlight people in your organization who are exemplifying the type of culture alignment that is important to you. These are the people who should be highlighted in company publications, selected to serve on important committees or task forces, and promoted into positions of higher authority.
A company’s narrative is a bit like its life story. It’s how the organization conveys where it came from, what it’s doing now, and where it’s going in the future. The same organization could be perceived vastly differently, by varying audiences, depending on the narrative it sets and how well it portrays that narrative. What kind of stories are being told around your healthcare organization? Are they aligned with your desired corporate culture?
This may surprise you, but as Coleman points out, the physical space in which employees work is perhaps the most tangible element of company culture. Do your employees work in an open space with minimal walls? Are the top executives hidden away on an executive floor requiring permission for staff and others to access them? Do certain employees, departments, or functions work from home? All three settings say different things about an organization’s culture.
Molding Culture: Next Steps
It might not seem obvious at first, but every corporation, just like any grouping of individuals, has its own heart and soul—its own unique personality. Understanding that your organization has a corporate culture is the first step towards molding it to the benefit of the organization and its employees. That’s just the first step, though. The next steps include:
- Determining whether the culture that exists is the right culture to move you toward your vision
- Identifying gaps
- Taking steps to mold your culture to meet the needs of your organization and those it serves—most importantly, its patients
The bottom line is that corporate culture can be very ephemeral. Your communications can, and should, help to turn the ephemeral into the tangible.
Jean Hitchcock is President of Hitchcock Marketing & Communications. Jean is a marketing and communications thought leader who blends considerable consulting and corporate experience in healthcare and is an advocate for bringing the voice of the patient to all internal communication and marketing discussions.