Finding the right words to boost purpose-driven employee culture

20 September 2021 5 min. read
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As employers across nearly all sectors struggle to hire talent in 2021, company culture is receiving fresh attention. Cierra Dobson, Strategy Director at design and technology agency Rufus Leonard, explains how leaders can take an active role in defining and embedding a culture that can help them attract and retain the best talent.

Compared to strategy and leadership, culture is described as the more “elusive lever” of effectiveness in HBR’s The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture because it’s “anchored in unspoken behaviours, mindsets, and social patterns.” And because of this elusiveness, the power of culture to support (or derail) an organisation’s strategic goals is often overlooked or relegated to an HR silo.

Cierra Dobson, Strategy Director, Rufus Leonard

Culture is a co-creation exercise whether you want it to be or not

The first step is to get under the skin of your organisation’s culture in its current form. This is especially critical with the upheavals of the pandemic and remote working. Even for a single individual, the how, when and why of work may have changed drastically over the last year and a half. What does it feel like to be an employee at your organisation now? Where do they believe the organisation is headed, and how do they see their role in that journey?

Asking and answering these questions isn’t always easy, so bringing in a third-party specialist can help you get an unbiased and unfiltered view. Also consider research formats: focus-group style discussions can garner higher quality engagement than anonymous surveys but pay special attention to the composition of the groups; mixing levels of seniority can quickly stifle candour.

The key to not sacrificing authenticity when defining a more aspirational culture is to ask a representative set of employees to be co-architects of the new definition. It’s essential that this group be involved not only in the initial phases, but actively shape the language and messaging of the final narrative, EVP or talent attraction proposition.

Try prompting feedback with questions like: “Is this how you’d talk to a friend about an open position here?”; “How do you think someone in your role would feel hearing this?”; or “How well do these words align to your past experience and future expectations of what it actually will be like to work here?”

Embedding internal messaging is most effective when it has come from the minds and mouths of employees themselves. Co-creation is also a natural way to help employees feel ownership over the narrative and become engaged advocates for the long term. Employees themselves are the ones who ultimately control the culture in your organisation, effective leaders recognise and leverage that power.

Thread the needle between D&I, culture and purpose

Over the past year, many organisations have taken a hard look at the state of their Diversity and Inclusion efforts, especially as they relate to culture and purpose. How can leaders ensure that D&I becomes a meaningful and widely communicated part of internal culture?

Numerous studies have shown that diverse companies tend to be more successful; McKinsey’s Diversity Matters research shows that companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity were 36% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

It helps to get specific about the ways in which diverse individuals, perspectives and abilities connect to your organisation’s purpose. That means drawing on concrete examples from the day-to-day work and articulating their contribution to overall strategic objectives in a way your employees will recognise. Stories that celebrate a specific individual’s contribution are a common way to do this but consider where the perspective of a few individuals have led to more widespread change for the entire organisation.

Conversely, the process of defining your culture narrative is an opportunity to find where current culture may be hampering D&I efforts. Does valuing customer-centricity above all else mean employees with children are penalised when they ignore a client email during story time? An honest dialogue about the relationship between culture and diversity and the concrete impacts they have on each other will help ensure all employees feel their experience as diverse individuals is recognised and valued within the company culture.

Words fall flat without action

Incredibly, research has shown little to no correlation between values professed and the actual culture reported by employees for most companies, and a major reason may be a lack of concrete guidance on desired behaviour. Successful internal narratives should align to how employees are hired and evaluated, how their wins are celebrated, and how they’re given new challenges and opportunities to grow.

The final step in defining a culture narrative is to bring it to life, in big and small ways. Think creatively about delivering the messaging but also about how it should impact employee experience and behaviour. If innovation is a core value, consider ideas like dedicated time for employees to experiment within a relevant challenge agreed to with their manager.

Exploring these kinds of experience and behaviour implications has the added benefit of forcing conversations, debate and (hopefully) collaboration across the business, ensuring the culture narrative takes shape beyond a HR silo. Translating an internal narrative into experiences people can see and feel is essential to prove that a company’s promise to employees is more than just words.

Key takeaways

Leaders that want to define a culture narrative are faced with numerous challenges but finding the right words and experiences to inspire current employees and attract new talent is one of the most daunting.

Those that succeed most often are the ones who co-create with a dedicated group of employees start-to-finish; connect D&I to purpose and values in tangible ways; and apply the narrative to real employee experiences, in collaboration with leaders across the business