How to Lead a Drifting Culture

Story Highlights

  • Leaders need to be aware of seemingly minor culture shifts
  • Cultural drift is not always harmful, if handled correctly
  • Three Lessons Help Leaders Intentionally Support Cultural Drift

Over the past few years, definitions of work culture — “how we do things here” — have changed dramatically. Many aspects (eg, processes, technology, workflows, training) are changing as leaders adapt to global pressures and new employee expectations.

Some changes are obvious, such as dramatic changes in where employees work. However, most cultural changes are subtle, slow and difficult to define. For example, a change in culture can be manifested by:

  • differences in onboarding experiences and how new hires form relationships
  • changes in team structures and workflows due to external pressures, such as supply chain issues
  • new communication standards aimed at keeping hybrid employees connected

The drift of cultures may seem inconsequential. But when your culture changes, the messages you send to employees and candidates about what matters most to your organization also change. Even a gradual evolution can lead to significant changes in the experience of your employees, customers and shareholders. Ultimately, a minor cultural shift can influence global stakeholder confidence in how your organization delivers on its promises.

Even a gradual evolution can lead to significant changes in the experience of your employees, customers and shareholders. Ultimately, a minor cultural shift can influence global stakeholder confidence in how your organization delivers on its promises.

Supporting culture drift is critical to the long-term success of your organization – a great culture attracts world-class talent and focuses and engages employees. When employees are on the same page as leaders, they can meet behavioral expectations and deliver customer experiences that set your organization apart from the competition.

Ask yourself: how much alignment do you want between employees and managers? Does your culture measure up to workplaces that attract talent? Or succumb to drift? If you want exceptional alignment – where employees not only understand your vision, but also align their behaviour with that vision — you have to make culture a long-term priority.

It’s no surprise, then, that culture is a top concern among CHROs surveyed by Gallup in 2021.

The question is not if your culture has drifted, but where and how. It is up to leaders to determine which changes are beneficial and which are detrimental.

How to refine your culture

To avoid flying blind, leaders need to answer several questions:

  • What are the subtle, invisible changes in how your organization “gets things done”?
  • How has this shift affected the perceptions of employees, customers, and candidates about what matters most to your organization?
  • What employee behaviors and brand promises does your culture promote?
  • How does cultural drift influence your competitiveness in the market, such as your employee value proposition (EVP) and your customer brand?

Gallup has studied culture transformation for decades. Our insights and advice have helped leaders around the world measure their culture, define their ideal state, and achieve their cultural goals.

The question is not whether your culture drifted, but where and how. It is up to leaders to determine which changes are beneficial and which are detrimental.

As culture experts at Gallup, we’ve learned three lessons that can help leaders take charge of culture drift and intentionally direct the future of their culture:

  1. Be authentic to who you are. In our experience working with clients, leaders are often tempted to fit their culture into a predefined box. In reality, every culture is a complex mix of attitudes, values, beliefs and ways of working: No two work cultures are the same. Thus, leaders must measure the strengths and weaknesses of their unique culture to determine the most fundamental and valuable aspirations for their organization.

    For example, customer orientation is a common ideal. But there are many ways to achieve customer centricity depending on your organization’s industry, market segment, core service, etc. Generic approaches to culture will promote generic change. But a tailored approach helps leaders achieve a differentiated culture and an inimitable customer proposition.

  2. Don’t see culture as a stand-alone initiative. Time and time again, we have seen that the best leaders consider their objective and Mark when designing their culture. When leaders embed a strong purpose into their work culture, they put that purpose at the heart of how work gets done, not just inspirational words.

    And because culture determines your brand and how your company is known to the world, leaders must shape their culture in ways that promote their brand promises.

    When leaders understand that purpose, brand, and culture are interdependent, they can align these vital elements so that employees are motivated to deliver on brand promises and pursue their common goal.

  3. Collect employee feedback on your culture. In Gallup’s experience, effective leaders listen to their employees (via qualitative and quantitative feedback) when shaping their culture. When you measure the culture in the language of your employees, you can shape that culture in a way that is authentic to your staff. Giving employees a voice promotes engagement, commitment and ownership.

    Additionally, leaders promote excellence when they examine how their top performers solve problems, reflect on processes, and approach winning when defining shared cultural values ​​and behavioral norms.

Remember: culture change happens gradually: leaders must commit to investing in their culture as a long-term priority. Communicate often and regularly on your vision of culture. Ask yourself: what example are you setting as a leader? The most influential and culture-defining messages come from executives, so make sure everything you say and do aligns with the culture you aspire to.

Cultural drift box Be positive: this is part of an agile organization. What’s vital is that leaders keep their finger on the pulse of their culture to ensure that their culture is moving in a direction that supports what matters most to their organization.

Perhaps most importantly, leaders need to move beyond discussions of culture. It takes intentionality and long-term dedication to build a resilient culture that inspires people globally. No organization is immune to disruption and the resulting cultural drift – and only leaders can control it.

Take charge of your culture:

Authors)

Rohit Kar is a management consultant at Gallup.

Allan Watkinson is a management consultant at Gallup.

Bailey Nelson is a writer at Gallup.

Helen D. Jessen